16 Dec / After Butter Chicken Comes …
Every once in awhile–and particularly when it’s cold and grey out–I’ll yearn for the stodgy British staples I learned to love during our stay in England: toad-in-the-hole, bamgers and mash, pork pie, and … chicken tikka masala.
It was only after living in England for a few months that I realized chicken tikka masala wasn’t an authentic Indian dish. I should’ve known. It didn’t seem quite right to be able to order a curry dish at the neighborhood pub and wash down desi flavors with a pint.Truth be told, chicken tikka masala is a crowd favorite in the British Isles. The dish is included in BBC’s 2003 publication Recipes for the Nation’s Favorite Food—Britain’s Top 100 dishes. More recently, a 2012 survey carried out by The Food Network UK ranked it the country’s second most popular international dish, after Chinese stir-fry.
In 2001, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook declared that “Chicken Tikka Masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.” (See excerpts reported in The Guardian).
Chicken tikka masala can be broken down into two parts: the chicken tikka part—bite-sized pieces of boneless chicken marinated in yogurt and spices then skewered and baked in a tandoor or clay oven (a.k.a.tandoori chicken kabob); and the masala (mixed spices) sauce that was added to satisfy every Briton’s desire to devour meats smothered in gravy.
The origin of this dish is heavily disputed. A popular tale is that it originated in an Indian restaurant in Glasgow, Scotland. According to legend, a customer ordered chicken tikka and sent it back, complaining it was too dry. The Bangladeshi chef in the kitchen decided to improvise with ingredients on hand, namely a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, yogurt, cream and spices. Et voila, chicken tikka masala was born.
I’m more inclined to think that the ancestral dish from whence chicken tikka masala grew is butter chicken, or murgh makhani, which is famous, and delicious, in its own right.
Flipping through Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking (Barron’s, 1982), I discovered a recipe for chicken in butter sauce and it looked very much like a chicken tikka masala recipe to me. Ms. Jaffrey describes this dish as “tandoori chicken … transformed with a sauce.” Sound familiar?
Food writer and novelist Monica Bhide has also waxed lyrical about her dad’s butter chicken many times in print. In fact, Ms. Bhide spotlights butter chicken in her new novel Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken and even features the recipe in a companion cookbook. Below, an excerpt from her essay for NPR hints at butter chicken’s provenance.
“This is the real butter chicken,” (Dad would) say. “I can tell you it tastes like the one from Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi. Did I ever tell you that is where this dish originated? I will take you there when we are in Delhi next.”
Since its debut at the Moti Mahal in 1948, butter chicken has spread worldwide like dandelion seeds in gale-force winds, touching down in the United Kingdom probably sometime in the late ‘50s.
Surprisingly—or not–no two chicken tikka masala recipes are alike. Chefs across the country, taking into account local/regional tastes, put their own twists on the original Moti Mahal recipe and butter chicken evolved into what is now known as chicken tikka masala.
Yes, both recipes share key ingredients and cooking methods, but this time, I decided to go with the “mother”recipe, butter chicken. The result–a flavorful dish that even my 6-year-old enjoyed!