Who created chicken tikka masala? The death of a curry king is reviving a debate
The death of a Pakistani-Scottish chef who claimed he cooked up the world’s first chicken tikka masala is prompting a flood of tributes to what’s been described as ‘Britain’s national dish’ — and reviving a debate into its true origin.
Ali Ahmed Aslam, known widely as Mr. Ali, died of health complications on Monday at age 77, his nephew Andleeb Ahmed confirmed to NPR.
Aslam was the owner of Glasgow’s popular Shish Mahal restaurant, which he opened in 1964 after immigrating from Pakistan as a boy.
In his telling, Aslam devised the globally beloved recipe one night in the 1970s, when a customer complained that traditional chicken tikka was too dry. The chef went back to the kitchen and combined spices, cream and a can of condensed tomato soup. Voilà: the modern model for chicken tikka masala was born.
But so, too, was a debate about its origin.
Who created chicken tikka masala?
In 2009, a Glasgow politician campaigned for chicken tikka masala to be granted protected heritage status and for the city to be named its official home. But the bid was rejected after multiple establishments from around the U.K. laid claim to the dish.
Others say the curry was most certainly invented in South Asia. Monish Gurjal, the head of the popular Indian restaurant chain Moti Mahal, says his grandfather was serving chicken tikka masala to Indian heads of state as early as 1947.
“It’s kind of like: who invented chicken noodle soup?” says Leena Trivedi-Grenier, a freelance food writer who probed the various origin claims in 2017. “It’s a dish that could’ve been invented by any number of people at the same time.”
Chicken tikka (sans the masala) has been a popular street food in Pakistan and northern India for decades. At its core, it involves chicken that’s marinated in chili powder and yogurt, then blackened on a grill or in a tandoor, an oven made out of ground clay.
The cooking method leaves chicken tikka prone to drying out, says Trivedi-Grenier; the idea to add a sauce with staples like cream, butter and tomato isn’t too revolutionary.
Another point of debate is the dish’s relatively mild taste. In an interview originally shared by AFP news, Aslam said the recipe was adapted from traditional cuisine “according to our customer’s taste.”
“Usually they don’t take hot curry,” he said of U.K. diners. “That’s why we cook it with yogurt and cream.”
In 2001, the U.K.’s foreign secretary, Robin Cook, said in a speech that chicken tikka masala is a “a true British national dish,” epitomizing “multiculturalism as a positive force for our economy and society.”
But to Trivedi-Grenier, the idea that chicken tikka masala was created solely to suit British people’s palates is “garish” when one considers the symbolism.
“How do you colonize and enslave an entire country for a century and then claim that one of their dishes is from your own country?”
Customers remember Aslam as a humble man and talented chef
Aslam, a man who shied away from attention, found a sense of purpose in exposing his customers to new flavors, said his nephew, Andleeb Ahmed.
“He was actually serving customers until the end of his life,” Ahmed said. “That was his passion. That was what he loved doing.”
Around the world, those who’ve dined at Shish Mahal are remembering Aslam as kind and talented, and someone who helped expand their culinary sensibilities.
“I tasted my first curry in the Shish Mahal in 1967 and continued to enjoy them during my student days and beyond,” tweeted a former Scottish member of parliament.
Vijay Prashad, an international journalist, wrote that, to say the addition of chicken tikka masala has benefited many menus, is “controversial,” but the food is undeniably good.
“Naans down in [Aslam’s] honor,” he added.
Ironically, when it came to his own taste preferences, Aslam ranked chicken tikka masala fairly low, his nephew said.
“The chefs would make a very traditional curry for him. He’d eat it at lunch every day,” Ahmed explained.
“He’d only have chicken tikka masala when guests were over.”
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Glasgow, 1972 – it’s about 11 p.m., and a bus driver has come to the Shish Mahal restaurant for a late dinner. But the chicken’s kind of dry.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALI AHMED ASLAM: Some customer says, I think we need some sauce with that, and this is a bit dry. And instead of giving them separate sauce, we thought it would be better we cook their chicken tikka with some different sauce.
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
Restaurateur Ali Ahmed Aslam died earlier this week. But in 2009, he told the news agency AFP that he soaked some spices in Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup and cooked the chicken in that. And in this moment, a Pakistani immigrant to Scotland invented what’s now one of the world’s most popular Indian dishes – chicken tikka masala.
KELLY: Or at least that’s one common story. Others say that the curry was invented in South Asia. A popular Indian restaurant chain says it was serving chicken tikka masala to Indian heads of state as early as 1947.
LEENA TRIVEDI-GRENIER: Do we know for sure that Kundan Lal Gujral was the first inventor of it? No. But we know that he laid claim to it and opened his restaurant, Moti Mahal, more than 20 years before this Pakistani-Scottish gentleman.
SUMMERS: Leena Trivedi-Grenier is a food writer who researched the origins of chicken tikka masala in 2017.
TRIVEDI-GRENIER: It’s kind of like who invented chicken noodle soup? It’s a dish that could have easily been invented by any number of people.
SUMMERS: Ultimately, she says, it was probably a case of simultaneous invention, of several chefs roasting chicken tikka in a tandoor oven, then further cooking it in a rich curry.
KELLY: Ali Ahmed Aslam was apparently among them. His nephew Andleeb Ahmed says his uncle loved his work, that he still often personally brought customers their food, though when it came to his own palate…
ANDLEEB AHMED: When he had guests in the restaurant, he would have things like chicken tikka masala. But normally, the chefs would make a very traditional curry for him, and he’d have it at lunch every day.
KELLY: Ali Ahmed Aslam was 77 years old. His restaurant and his most famous dish live on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright Smack Magazine, NPR.
Anna May Wong will become the first Asian American to be on U.S. currency
The U.S. Mint will begin shipping coins featuring actress Anna May Wong on Monday, the first U.S. currency to feature an Asian American.
Dubbed Hollywood’s first Asian American movie star, Wong championed the need for more representation and less stereotypical roles for Asian Americans on screen. Wong, who died in 1961, struggled to land roles in Hollywood in the early 20th century, a time of “yellowface,” when white people wore makeup and clothes to take on Asian roles, and anti-miscegenation laws, which criminalized interracial relationships.
The roles she did land were laced with racial stereotypes and she was underpaid, earning $6,000 for her top billed role in Daughter of the Dragon compared to Warner Oland’s $12,000, who only appeared in the first 23 minutes of the film. For Shanghai Express, Wong earned $6,000 while Marlene Dietrich made $78,166.
After experiencing this racist treatment in Hollywood, Wong moved to Europe and starred in English, French and German films. She told the Los Angeles Times in a 1933 interview that she was tired of the roles she had to play in Hollywood.
“Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain — murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass,” she told the newspaper. “We are not like that.”
Wong’s career spanned 60 films — many in the silent era — and she earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
The U.S. Mint’s American Women Quarters Program celebrates five female trailblazers in American history each year between 2022 and 2025. Wong is featured on the fifth coin released this year. The U.S. Mint is expected to produce more than 300 million Wong quarters at facilities in Philadelphia and Denver.
Mint Director Ventris Gibson called Wong “a courageous advocate who championed for increased representation and more multi-dimensional roles for Asian American actors.”
The tail of the coins will show a close-up of Wong with her head resting on her hand, while the front will feature a portrait of George Washington created by 20th century sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser, who became the first woman to design a coin for the U.S. in 1921.
The four other women in the program this year were poet Maya Angelou, astronaut Sally Ride, suffragist and politician Nina Otero-Warren, and Wilma Mankiller, first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
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