This week we mourn the sad passing of Ali Ahmed Aslam of Glasgow’s inimitable Shish Mahal, and founder of Britains National Dish, chicken tikka masala, so I thought it an opportune moment to share this article originally written in 2020.
Two things have happened in the last couple of days to prompt this article. The first is that I was asked, after completing a short presentation on India, if the Indian food that we get here is anything like the Indian food that we get in India. The answer is no, absolutely not, not a bit, well apart from the occasional good south Indian restaurant but that’s not what most people here consider to be a ‘curry.’ The second thing that happened was that leading chefs of India celebrated what would have been the 97th birthday of Shri Kundan Lal Jaggi. Now I know that very few, if anyone in these parts, will have heard of this legend, for a legend he is, but bear with me.
There’s a foundation in India called the India Soft Power Foundation, soft power is ‘a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence.’ You may be thinking, ‘but I’m not influenced by India,’ but you may be, without realising and that is soft power. Think about it, we love yoga, which originated in India around 5000 years ago, we are quite keen on Bollywood and bling and of course, food, don’t we all love a curry? In fact, it has been stated by many who claim to be in the know, that Chicken Tikka Masala is now our national dish, overtaking fish and chips and a good old Sunday Roast.
Now then, let’s go back to the beginning of this piece, where I was asked if Indian food here is anything like in India, well, the truth is Chicken Tikka Masala doesn’t even exist in India. Chicken tikka, yes, masala, yes, but the two together? In the words of Kipling, ‘Never the twain shall meet.’ The nearest India has is Butter Chicken, and this has become a world-famous phenomenon, thanks to the afore mentioned Shri Kundan Lal Jaggi.
This naturally prompted me to do some research. Where, when and how did each dish originate?
Chicken Tikka Masala originated in Glasgow (!) exclamation point absolutely necessary there I feel, by a gentleman of Pakistani origin, Ali Ahmed Aslam owner of Glasgow’s famous ‘authentic’ Shish Mahal restaurant which, by all accounts, has a cult following. The story goes that back in the 1970’s a grumbling customer complained that his chicken was dry, we do love our gravy, and so it was taken back to the kitchen and embellished with a touch of tomato soup and a sprinkling of spices. It didn’t take much to make this customer happy and he returned time and again with his friends and thus, the dish was born.
Butter Chicken has a vaguely similar story though it dates back to pre-partition India (pre 1947) and a shop in Peshawar called Mukhey da Dhaba, owned by a gentleman called Mokha Singh. It was here that young Kundan Lal worked and where he helped invent Tandoori Chicken that we all also love today. It didn’t take him long to realise that the Tandoori Chicken hanging on the seekhs above the tandoor all day dried out, so he then came up with the idea of creating a basic sauce with tomatoes, butter, cream and some spices to add the dry chicken to, and thus, Butter Chicken was born. Now I somehow prefer that story to the first, but I may be a little biased.
At partition, Kundan Lal, having bought the restaurant from Moskha Singh, moved to Delhi bringing all the accoutrements of his restaurant with him including, his recipes for Tandoori and Butter Chicken. He set up a small outlet, Moti Mahal in Daryaganj which rapidly grew in popularity and is now, over 70 years later, a successful chain of restaurants with outlets far and wide (thanks to his grandson) and the dish has attained International renown.
Is it mere coincidence that both dishes have their origins in a restaurateur’s inspiration. That, in a country where many of today’s preparations are believed to date back centuries, and a few, millennia? Who knows?
What I do know is that, in India, we do go mad for Butter Chicken, the beauty of which lies in the subtle balance of tanginess and a velvety texture. It is easy to get wrong, and it can be too sweet or too spicy because you see, the idea of spices in India, is to add depth and subtlety of flavour, rather than our opinion of them which is just to add heat.
Here in the UK, do we love Chicken Tikka Masala or is it just the dish we’ve most heard of and trust and therefore order most often? I’m not sure, but, if you do fancy a go at making your own wonderful flavourful and ultimately typical Indian chicken ‘curry,’ then do have a go at the recipe below. It’s the original from Monish Gujras’s own site, their may look to be a lot of ingredients, but it’s an easy dish to make and I guarantee, you won’t be disappointed!
3-4 servings | Prep: 20 mins | Cook: 35 mins | Ready In: 59 mins
First one has to make the tandoori chicken followed by the butter sauce.
600-700 gm Chicken pat dried
1 tsp Red chilli powder
1 1/2 tbsp Lemon- juice
Salt to taste
1/2 cup Yoghurt
1 tbsp Garlic paste
1 tbsp Ginger paste
1/2 tsp Rock salt
1 tsp Garam masala
Red colour (optional)
1/2 tsp Dry fenugreek
2 Onions cut into rings
1 Lemon wedges
For the sauce:
1 Tandoori chicken
800 gm Ripe red tomatoes
2 tbsp Oil
1 Onions chopped
1 tbsp Red Chili powder
1 tbsp Ginger garlic paste
Salt to taste
2 tbsp Cashew paste
1 tbsp Garam masala
1 tsp Zeera powder
50 gm Butter
50 gm Double fresh cream
1 tsp Dry fenugreek powder
2 Green chilies deseeded
1 tbsp Fresh green coriander chopped
1 tbsp Fresh cream for garnish
Make two deep incisions each on breast and the drum sticks.
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl and rub all over the chicken and keep aside for 1 hr.
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl and rub on the chicken pieces and keep for at least 3 hours.
Preheat the oven to 180 C. Place the chicken on the grill rack , place the tray underneath to collect all the juices. Grill for 8-10 minutes.
Brush with oil, turn upside down and grill for 3-4 minutes till tender. Remove from the grill and keep aside.
For the Makhni Sauce:
Take a pan, put oil and heat gently. Add the onion and sauté for few seconds.
Add the chopped tomatoes , bay leaf and salt in the pan and let it simmer , stirring occasionally till the oil separates from the sides.
Strain the sauce. Pour in a pan and bring to a simmer. Add all the spices then add in the Tandoori Chicken & stir for 3-4 minutes.
Add butter and stir until it melts, add in cream and remove quickly from the heat.
Garnish with green chilies and coriander with a drip of cream.
Serve with naan or roti.