It\'s a much-loved favourite but how authentic is it?

It's a much-loved favourite but how authentic is it? Getty

Chicken tikka masala may be one of the most popular Indian meals in the world but it seems to be as Indian as our beloved spice bag is Chinese. Élodie Noël takes a look at the mysterious history of the famous dish.

So, what exactly is chicken tikka masala? That’s quite a tricky question. The base is a chicken tikka, a traditional Indian dish made of chunks of chicken marinated in spices and dahi (yoghurt), and cooked in a tandoor oven.

The chicken is then added to the “masala” (spice mix in Hindi), an orange creamy sauce. The issue is that the ingredients for this sauce vary tremendously, but usually include tomato puree, cream or coconut cream and spices such as turmeric and paprika. Sometimes, a food dye is used to colour the sauce. 

Chicken tikka masala/Getty

Chicken tikka masala/Getty

While the inspiration for the dish, which is known in the trade as the “CTM”, is certainly Indian, the recipe itself was most likely created in a kitchen in the United Kingdom. According to the The Multicultural Handbook of Food, Nutrition and Dietetics, we owe it Bangladeshi chefs who had emigrated to the UK and started opening so-called Indian restaurants in the 1960s. They developed a new cuisine that would appeal to the British palate and served a number of inauthentic "Indian" foods, including chicken tikka masala, or chicken korma.

Born in Scotland?

One rather amusing version of the story - yet not backed by any actual proof - is that CTM originated in a restaurant in Scotland. Pakistani chef Ali Ahmed Aslam, owner of the Shish Mahal restaurant  in the west end of Glasgow, once said to UK newspaper,  The Telegraph that he invented it by improvising a sauce for a demanding patron: "We used to make chicken tikka and one day a customer said 'I'd take some sauce with that, this is a bit dry' so we cooked chicken tikka with the sauce which contains yoghurt, cream, spices". The legend is that the base of the sauce was actually a tin of condensed tomato soup.

In an article published in Menu Magazine in 2016, Peter and Colleen Grove, experts on the history of ethnic food, examined different claims to the creation of the CTM, concluding that “the mystery will have to remain”, as no chef has ever been able to provide “any evidence or witness support”. 

They did, however, identify butter chicken as the original form of CTM. Tracing it back to Moti Mahal, an Indian restaurant which opened in New Delhi in 1948, they say that chef Lala Kundan Lal Gujral worked with a local man to produce the first tandoori spice mix, made of ground coriander seeds, black pepper and mild red pepper. This spice mix was used in Moti Mahal to make the tandoori chicken. To recycle the leftover chicken juices from the marinade trays, the cooks started adding butter and tomato to it. This sauce was then tossed around with the tandoor-cooked chicken pieces before being served. This butter chicken, called murg makhani in Hindi, was such a success in the Indian capital that it soon started being exported to the rest of the world. 

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The authentic alternative

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According to Sunil Ghai, owner of Pickle restaurant on Camden Street, the murgh nakhani, or butter chicken, is actually very similar to the CTM. “The sauces are the same base, tomato, fenugreek, honey, cardamom, maize, but CTM is much milder and sweeter. People add sugar, coconut cream… butter chicken doesn’t have any of that. It is more flavoursome than CTM and much spicier.”

While he acknowledges the fact that chicken tikka masala is not a traditional Indian dish per se, Sunil believes that chefs need to have a pragmatic approach to it. “There is certainly nothing called chicken tikka masala back home in India!”, he says. “But if someone asks for it, I will cook it for them. I’m not going to say no, it’s a popular dish!” To please his customers, he makes them a milder version of his butter chicken. “I only make it the way we do it in India, we have our own recipe which is as authentic as possible.”

In his Dublin 2 restaurant, Sunil offers a farmer’s butter chicken, using fenugreek, ginger, green chilly and cardamom to flavour a velvety tomato sauce. He serves it with a garlic, coriander & onion naan. 

In Ananda, Dundrum, chef Karan Mittal’s interpretation of the classic is made of Irish chicken, tomatoes, local heather honey, cream, fenugreek cracker and pickled shallots. No CTM can be found on the menu of the award-winning Indian restaurant. 

The menu in Kinara Kitchen in Ranelagh features a murgh tikka masala, which is a barbecued chicken breast served in a creamy cashew and almond nut sauce. Garnished with flaked almond, it sounds quite similar to a chicken korma, or at least the westernised version of it. 

Do you like chicken tikka masala? Or do you feel like it is Indian food for dummies? Let us know!

Author: Élodie Noël

Élodie is a French journalist who relocated to Dublin about three years ago. She immediately fell in love with the island and its amazing food and has been writing about it on her blog Lemon Lipstick. You can follow Élodie's food adventures on  Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.