British values and chicken tikka masala

Britain has a long-standing identity crisis.

Or maybe that’s a recent one. I suppose it depends on how long you consider long. But never mind the numbers. Ever since I moved here, politicians have been fretting over British values—what they are, who doesn’t have them, and how to get immigrants to adopt them.

Speaking as an immigrant, it’s hard to adopt British values when the British are hazy about what they are. Or maybe that’s what they should be. But hey, we do what we can. Or I do, so while the important people are trying to figure it all out, let’s talk about the important stuff, like British food. Because nothing runs deeper into a culture than food. You don’t believe me? Move to another country and see what you miss.

Irrelevant (and less than sharp) photo: Winter trees. I have got to get out there and take some more photos.

Okay, “nothing runs deeper” could be overstating the case. I’m using a time-tested way of making a point here, which is to exaggerate and toss in a bit of bullshit. But who’d notice if I didn’t point it out?

Let’s move on. After reading my post about fish and chips, Derrick J. Knight commented,

“I believe fish and chips has been supplanted by chicken tikka masala. Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, in 2001 claimed: ‘Chicken tikka masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken tikka is an Indian dish. The masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.’”

Cook wasn’t being original in claiming chicken tikka masala as the British national dish. The idea’s so prevalent in the national joke-o-sphere and all a person has to do is reach out and snag a version as it flits past, then claim it as their own.

The ponderous explanation of why it’s so gloriously British, however, I’m willing to credit to Cook alone.

So let’s talk about chicken tikka masala.

Before Britain voted to leave the European Union, a group of MPs tried to get the dish Protected Designation of Origin recognition from the EU. That would (or would have if the move’s been abandoned) put it on a level with champagne and parmesan–foods whose names are reserved to those products made in the region where they originated.

Their claim was based on a origin story that traces it back to Ahmed Aslam Ali, who is supposed to have invented chicken tikka masala in his Glasgow restaurant.

“We used to make chicken tikka,” he told the Telegraph—or possibly someone else, but it doesn’t matter because the Telegraph quoted him and that’s who I’ll attribute the quote to, “and one day a customer said ‘I’d take some sauce with that, this is a bit dry,’ so we cooked chicken tikka with the sauce which contains yoghurt, cream, spices.”

In other versions of the story, he tossed in a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, some spices, and a bit of yogurt. I was reading happily enough until I got to the can of tomato soup, at which I went into such a deep state of shock that I lost the URL that would’ve proved I didn’t make that up.

Applying for Protected Designation of Origin recognition meant that all hell broke loose. We’re quoting from the Telegraph again.

“Zaeemuddin Ahmad, a chef at Delhi’s Karim Hotel, which was established by the last chef of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, said the recipe had been passed down through the generations in his family [presumably without the canned soup, but what do I know?].

“’Chicken tikka masala is an authentic Mughlai recipe prepared by our forefathers, who were royal chefs in the Mughal period. Mughals were avid trekkers and used to spend months altogether in jungles and far off places. They liked roasted form of chickens with spices,’ he said.

“Rahul Verma, Delhi’s most authoritative expert on street food, said he first tasted the dish in 1971 and that its origins were in Punjab. ‘It’s basically a Punjabi dish not more than 40-50 years old and must be an accidental discovery which has had periodical improvisations,’ he said.

“Hemanshu Kumar, the founder of Eating Out in Delhi, a food group which celebrates Delhi’s culinary heritage, ridiculed Glasgow’s claim. ‘Patenting the name chicken tikka masala is out of the question. It has been prepared in India for generations. You can’t patent the name, it’s preposterous,’ he said.”

In another version of the tale, “Chicken tikka masala originated in British India where its spicy precedent was toned down to suit British palates. They also claim that butter chicken was the first protoype of chicken tikka masala. In her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Lizzie Collingham takes an excellent look at the history of Indian food. She has an entire chapter dedicated to chicken tikka masala and writes, according to food critics, that it, ‘was not a shining example of British multiculturalism but a demonstration of the British facility for reducing all foreign foods to their most unappetizing and inedible forms.’”

Take that, Robin Cook. And for the record, I have no opinion of my own about how appetizing or unappetizing the stuff is. I’m been a vegetarian for decades now and have never tasted the stuff.

Now, can we talk about what British values are and what it would mean to the country if I do or don’t adopt them? I’ll make us a nice plate of chocolate chip cookies to eat while we talk.

A government decides to promote British values

The British government worries that Britain may not be British enough. It worries so much that the Department for Education has instructed schools to promote British values.

Part of this is meant to counter the lure ISIS has on a (let’s be realistic, limited but highly publicized) number of young people, but I seem to remember that they started talking about British values back when Scotland was voting on whether to leave the U.K. So I’m guessing that some more general unease lies behind the decision.

Let me be clear: I take ISIS seriously. Hell, I take Scotland seriously. What I don’t take seriously are people who think “promoting British values” is a response to either of those very distinct entities. Especially since the British values campaign forces everyone to confront the awkward question of what those values are. I mean, they’re not , say, the flag or apple pie. They’re hard to define.

Irrelevant photo: an old shed at Trebarwith Strand.

Irrelevant photo: an old shed at Trebarwith Strand. The pink flowers are red campion. I don’t make this stuff up. Really I don’t.

As prime minister, David Cameron defined them as freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility, and respect for British institutions. Nick Clegg, when he was deputy prime minister, added gender equality and equality before the law. Then his party tanked in the elections and no one’s consulted him since. Michael Gove, when he was secretary of education, defined them as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. Awkwardly enough, in 2007 he said trying to define Britishness was “rather un-British.”


Since Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, which should really be OSECSS) will have the joy of assessing the schools’ efforts, it’s published the official set of British values. They’re democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.

Can we tolerate people with different, non-British values? Sorry, the question’s too complicated. Ofsted lives in a true/false culture.

Do other countries hold to these same values and if they do are the values still specifically British? Sorry, that’s not on the test and we can’t discuss it now.

Can we tolerate politicians offering three sets of non-identical British values plus one opinion trashing the whole idea of codifying them? Of course we can, because by now everyone’s swung their weight behind the official version and has forgotten that they didn’t always agree. Except possibly Nick Clegg and, see above, no one consults him anymore.

In joyful response to this attempt at unifying the nation’s beliefs, a whole lot of people cut loose on Twitter under the hashtag #BritishValues. According to The Independent, some of the early tweets summarizing the aforesaid values included:

  • Being wary of foreigners while having a Belgian beer with an Indian curry in your Spanish villa wearing Indonesian clothes.
  • Queuing; dressing inappropriately when the sun comes out; warm beer; winning World Wars; immigration & Pot Noodles.
  • Wearing socks with sandals
  • complaining about immigration

The Independent article online was open for comments, and they included a few more suggestions:

  • Seeing a rogue traffic cone and immediately working out the nearest sculpture in need of a hat.
  • Denouncing immigrants, while we have a royal family made up of immigrants.
  • Loving fish and chips even though the potato migrated here from abroad.

The comment thread quickly degenerated into arguments, name calling, and “This comment has been deleted,” so I stopped reading. Instead, I went to Twitter to check out the more recent comments. Not all of them are funny. Some are bitter-edged comments about homelessness and not rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean.  Others are about trash in the hedges and dog-poo bags left by the side of the road. But, hey, we try to keep laughing here, even when the world’s going to hell in a handbasket.  The lighter tweets included:

  • The bloke in front of me just put his entire body weight on my foot & I said sorry.
  • Forming an orderly queue.
  • Pie and chips done properly!
  • Get an exclusive 15% off any order from @TwiningsTea

None of these answers the question (and I do understand that it wasn’t posed as a question) of what British values are, but it does point us in the right direction: Whatever they are, they include an ad for tea and a sense of humor. So brew yourself a nice cup and tell me something silly about British values, would you?

Or American values. Or any other nation’s values. I can’t wait to see where this goes.

Department of Futile Exercises: Summing up the U.K. and the U.S.

Recently, a teachers’ conference objected to the government’s drive to teach British values in the schools, saying it was becoming “the source of wider conflict rather than a means of resolving it.” (“Teachers urged to ‘disengage’ from promotion of British values”)

I’ve been hearing about British values since I first came to this country, and I always wonder what they are. Standing in orderly lines? Forming brass bands? Not using sunscreen on the beach, even though you’re light-skinned and have already turned an alarming shade of pink? It’s a heavy responsibility, settling on a handful of characteristics to sum up an entire nation.

Irrelevant photo: The coast on the same hazy day as the last waves-in-the-haze picture I posted. The haze was caused by a sandstorm in the Sahara.

What did the Department for (not of, thank you very much*) Education decide were the ultimate British values when they pushed the nation’s protesting teachers under the wheels of this particular train? “Democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs.” (“Schools ‘must actively promote British values’ – DfE”)

Don’t you just love a politician who can say stuff like that with a straight face? Because, of course, no other country in this battered old world can lay claim to those ideals. If you’re startled awake some night and hear that set of values marching down the street behind a brass band, you’ll know right away what country you woke up in.

Any discussion of British values is complicated by a central reality of Britain, which is that the country’s a mash-up of four (or five, if you’re a Cornish nationalist) nations**, and the people most likely to call themselves British seem to be those of us who aren’t English, Scottish, Northern Irish, or Welsh. Or Cornish. In other words, those of us who came from someplace else. Those of us whose children the Department for Education is worried about Britishizing.

As far as I can tell, summing up either a country or its values is a messy business, whatever country you pick. When I still lived in the U.S., I taught briefly in a community college, and we’d read an essay by an immigrant that made a passing reference to, if I remember right, “being more like an American.”

“What,” I asked, on the spur of the moment, “does it mean when you say someone’s like an American?”

It wasn’t a question I had an answer for, and as it turned out no one else did either. The class broke into small groups, and a couple of them set about finding some essential trait that would separate the Americans from the non-Americans, but pretty much everything people suggested fell apart. Being born in the country? Nope. You could still become a citizen, and a citizen was an American. Being a citizen, then? Well, legally, yes, but some non-citizens are as culturally American (whatever that means) as any citizen. One small group, pushed, I think, by a single enthusiast, decided that speaking English was a dividing line, but the other groups didn’t jump in to endorse that. Personally, I’m all for speaking the language of a country you live in (British and American expats in non-English-speaking countries, are you taking notes?), but not every immigrant can learn a new language. My great-grandmother never did, even though the price she paid was not being able to talk freely with her grandchildren. It wasn’t lack of motivation. She wasn’t young when she immigrated and she couldn’t make the adjustment. Maybe she wasn’t good with languages. Maybe she was terrified. I don’t know.

No one, including me, thought to mention that other countries speak English and it hasn’t made them particularly American. In fact, some countries—mentioning no names—think they speak it better than we do. And then there are the Puerto Ricans. They’re U.S. citizens by birth. If some of them speak only Spanish, either by choice or because it’s their only language, are they any less American?

I won’t go on. We couldn’t say what being American meant, although we all thought we knew.

So, British values? Sorry, folks, but I’m not hopeful. I will, however, have a hell of a good time listening to the debate as it staggers on.



*My spies tell me it used to be the Department of Education, but the name was changed at some point. I’m sure the education system is better because of it.

**I owe the insight about the U.K. being a country of four (or five) nations to my writers group. The United Kingdom looks a whole lot more united from the other side of the Atlantic. In fact, Scotland came very close to leaving in 2014. Somebody tell me: Did that get any coverage in the U.S.?