The Mysterious Origins Of Tikka Masala

Britannica describes chicken tikka masala as "[a] dish consisting of marinated boneless chicken pieces that are traditionally cooked in a tandoor and then served in a subtly spiced tomato-cream sauce." Commonly used in traditional Indian cooking, a tandoor is a "cylindrical clay oven" with a "charcoal fire" at the bottom, providing heat to the whole oven (via Britannica). Interestingly, the origin of tandoor ovens dates back to the age of the pyramids

Today, chicken tikka masala is most popular in the United Kingdom, with an area of curry houses in London known as Curry Mile (per South China Morning Post). Chicken tikka masala is also the highest-selling ready-to-eat meal at U.K. supermarket Sainsbury's, annually selling around 1.6 million chicken tikka masala meals. In 2009, a Scottish member of Parliament actually requested that the curry dish be granted a European Union Protected Designation of Origin status; however, his request was denied. 

So where did chicken tikka masala originate from and how did an Indian dish become the heart and soul of the U.K.? Regarding the dish, Robin Cook, who was the British Foreign Secretary in 2001, said (via South China Morning Post), " ... chicken tikka masala is a British national dish – chicken tikka was an Indian dish and the British added the sauce, because of their desire to have meat served in gravy." Here's the confusing and mysterious origin of tikka masala.

Some believe it derived from butter chicken; others believe it was invented in the UK

There are a few claims to chicken tikka masala's true origin. According to The Culture Trip, Ali Ahmed Aslam was a chef at the authentic curry house, Shish Mahal, in Glasgow, Scotland. Around the 1970s, one customer visited Aslam's curry house and complained about how dry the chicken was, so Aslam created a "gravy" using tomato soup and extra spices. He tossed the chicken, which was coated with a curry spice dry rub, into the sauce. The customer loved the dish so much that he kept coming back with his friends to enjoy it.

However, not everyone believes this story. The Culture Trip points out that a recipe for Shahi chicken masala is found in Balbir Singh's 1961 cookbook "Indian Cookery," which was several years before Aslam's creation. Furthermore, food historians Colleen and Peter Grove claim that chicken tikka masala "was most certainly invented in Britain, probably by a Bangladeshi chef."

Food critic Rahul Verma cites another origin for tikka masala, saying, "It's basically a Punjabi dish[,] not more than 40-50 years old and must be an accidental discovery which has had periodical improvisations" (via The Culture Trip). Agreeing with Verma, Britannica notes that it's highly likely that tikka masala descended from the popular Indian dish butter chicken. The real difference between butter chicken and tikka masala is in the curry base. Whichever origin story is true, chicken tikka masala remains a delicious, savory dish.