Chicken Tikka Masala: What’s the fuss?
As darker toned immigrants know, we all endure the inevitable but unnecessary hassles that comes with living in a region where the majority lack the “beige that don’t age” gene. For some, it’s being asked “where they’re really from.” For others, it’s being praised for the fluency in English. But for many Indians, it’s a night out with friends chowing down on their native food. Ever since we were small and viewed Ben Kingsley’s only good film, the dopest Desis know that South Asian cuisine is meant to be spicy, complex, and shared. Invariably, there is one dish that precludes these three variables from your Indian meal.
The Caucasian-celebrated cuisine culprit? You guessed it — the chicken tikka masala.
Now, I get it, white people. I understand your frustration (actually I don’t, but let’s pretend I do). You feel you’re under attack for everything you do and you want some sort of escape. One of your modes of escapism is eating out. But it seems the hottest trend in food today is the politics surrounding every dish.
And your beloved chicken tikka masala is no exception. CTM, as the British call it, has been a hotbed of geopolitical debate between two nations.
What is the history of Chicken Tikka Masala?
Ironically, the history of this dish is where heart of the politics lies. Food scholars have long debated the origins of this tasteless, banal, and undelightful dish. According to folklore, the journey of this unsavoriness item, began back in the 60’s in the epicenter Britain’s culinary district. Story goes: a British gentleman sometime in the 1960s, decided his chicken tikka, like his humor, was too dry. And, adhering to British customs, angrily demanded a better product. The chef tossed in a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, sprinkled some spices and added a dollop of yogurt to the dish. This hybrid of a mess came into being in and was christened Chicken Tikka Masala. Forever ruining 18%* of outings for South Asians (*Alternative Fact).
But some argue that this is utter rubbish. Cuisine historians contend chicken tikka masala originated in British India where its spicy precedent was toned down to suit colonialist palates. In her book “Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors”, Lizzie Collingham provides a fascinating look at the history of Indian food. Though detrimental to the state of her mental health, she dedicates an entire chapter to CTM and writes, “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”.
Forty years later, chicken tikka masala has so deeply entrenched itself into British culture as if it were the birthchild of Kate Winslet and Tom Hiddleston knighted by the queen over her tea time. In 2001, British Foreign Secretary dubbed chicken tikka masala as an example British innovation and the nations’s true national dish.
And that makes sense. Today, the world’s blandest dish is in popular demand by the world’s most blandest human beings. By 2009 the world’s palest patrons were consuming 25 million portions (2.5 billion pounds) of chicken tikka masala per year and 65,000 people were employed cooking and serving it. The tomato based boondoggle constitutes one-seventh of all the curries served in the UK. There’s a yearly National Curry Week in Britain, a musical number written about chicken tikka masala by a nightclub owner from Newport, Gwent in Wales, and even a packaged version sold by Heinz.
But there is obvious pushback. Indian cuisine historians brisk at the idea of this dish’s creation taking root in David Beckham’s backyard. For starters, the use of tandoor ovens goes back at least 5,000 years, and the creation of boneless tikka cutlets dates back to the time of the Mughal emperor and the noted medieval foodie, Babur, who imported his culinary darlings from his homeland in Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley. Further, various spices and marinades developed on top of those basic technical innovations stem from the early 15th century. Finally, as NYU Professor of Food Studies Krishnendu Ray notes, not all Indian food is spicy. Spend any time in Southern India and you’ll see that most of the food (and people) are void of profound zing.
How is this topic germane to today’s hot button issues?
Like most of the tenuous political items of the day, this issue touches upon nativism, multi-culturalism, and ownership of success. In 2001, when hearing that people were appalled by the decision of the British Foreign Service, British bureaucrats dubbed naysayers as unpatriotic, unwilling to understand England’s innovation, and simply ungrateful.
This shouldn’t be a shock to anyone. What British Foreign Service and other nationalists around the world who share this mindset don’t understand is the basis of their dissenters’ frustration. No rational immigrant denies or denounce the awesome privilege to migrate to land with more resources and the opportunity to cultivate a better life. They are enraged that their contribution to their new community is quickly and aggressively dismissed or discounted. Further, in this situation and others, foreigners are befuddled that certain patrons of their new home selectively choose to accept parts of their culture while framing all other aspects of multiculturalism as an existential threat.
Should we mix food and politics?
Absolutely. Not because it’s the right thing to do and it gives us a better lens into the evolution of our world, but it’s because you have no choice. As Anthony Bourdain once claimed, “there is nothing more political than food.”
And he’s right. Food is much more than a collection of ingredients intertwined. Food reflects a culture’s economy, demographics, and history (Note: there would be no Indian naan without the Persians. #thankshabibi). Cooking shows and food programs like Mr. Bourdain are a huge draw not only for their fine cuisine, but because they tap into the essence of the human spirit. That is the desire to make something, enjoy the fruits of their labor, and share it with their loved ones.
As you might surmise, I have no strong opinions regarding chicken tikka masala. But I ask all of you un-decadent dish devotees to expand your appetite horizons. Because when you do, I guarantee you will have a night out with more spice, complexity, and a better shared experience with friends.