Chicken tikka masala: more than a dish

by Akshara Panchumarthi (’26) | March 10, 2023

Art by Myra Malhotra (’26)

Food makes us who we are. It reflects everything from our heritage to our everyday lives. For instance, ethnic foods represent the story of a people and their culture, while national foods are meant to represent the population of a country and its tastes. England’s recognition of chicken tikka masala, inspired by Indian cuisine, as its national dish right alongside fish and chips has been a game changer.  

Historians hold different beliefs regarding the origins of chicken tikka masala. Some think that it was first made by a Bangladeshi chef, while others think that it is essentially butter chicken, which was invented by a Pakistani refugee who moved to India. However, the most common origin story of chicken tikka masala is centered around the self-proclaimed founder of the food, Ali Ahmed Aslam.

Ali Ahmed Aslam was born in British India, which later became Pakistan after both countries gained independence from British rule in 1947. He later immigrated to Glasgow, Scotland, with his family, where he opened an Indian restaurant called Shish Mahal. There, he invented chicken tikka masala, supposedly by complete accident. The story goes that a customer complained that the regular chicken tikka was too dry, so Aslam whipped up a curry with a can of tomato soup and spices. Not long after, the dish became very popular, and it started becoming available at curry houses and major supermarkets all over the UK.

In 2001, Robin Cook, the foreign secretary of the UK, gave a speech about chicken tikka masala. He talked about how it was “now a true British national dish… because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts to external influences.” According to Cook, chicken tikka masala was able to gain traction as such a popular dish because the English were open to moving past their colonial mindset to embrace other cultures. 

Now that South Asian communities are rapidly growing in Britain, this shift allows for a larger acceptance of people with different heritages. Even the new prime minister of Britain, Rishi Sunak, is of Indian origin. Although some British citizens have mixed feelings about this progress, minorities are finally getting the representation that they deserve. 

Indian and South Asian cuisine is not the only ethnic food gaining popularity in England. Foods like jerk chicken from the Caribbean, the spice peri-peri of African and Thai cuisines, and kebabs from Iranian and Afghani cuisines have also become commonplace throughout the UK. The variety of multicultural foods reflects today’s diverse society and all it has to offer.

Categories: Food

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