The Truth Behind Chicken Tikka Masala


H. Himal

It has been a few years now since I bore both the stress and sadness of working in restaurants, and yet I miss the company of the British people I served there, who loved the hot, properly cooked curries and my sense of humour, no matter how tired and suffocated I felt. Writes H. Himal.

As a foreign student, it took me seven years and more than £54,000 pounds to finance my studies and the high cost of living in the UK, but for some reason I loved working in the Indian restaurants, though I can’t exactly say why. Perhaps it was the curries I could eat at one or two a.m. in the morning, perhaps it was the customers, who staggered in after pub closing time for their dose of Indian food? Perhaps it was even the solidarity I felt with the other staff, in spite of the hostility and frustrations that often occurred because we were all working so many hours for so little.

It was especially bad at week-ends, which always felt like preparing for war. We certainly used to behave as if we were getting ready to fight, and once the army of curry lovers arrived, it was a battle for all of us. Everyone was under pressure which often resulted in fights among staff as well. If things went according to plan, we were all able to be our best, but when customers complained about late food orders or drinks that had not been served we all ran around like madmen, streaming with sweat. You will understand when I say I never want to work in restaurants again, and I certainly wouldn’t dine in an Indian restaurant during a weekend, when it becomes a place where human nature shows its darkest side.

I learnt a lot about British people working in Indian restaurants, about what makes them tick and why they love curry so much. Of course the main reason to love curry is its incredible variety and taste and, as the former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said in 2001, “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. Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The Masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.”

We work hard. We socialise less. We grumble less. And, yet there is a story
untold. Can you guess what that story may be? Kitchen staff before the fire
in a South London based curry house

But how many people here know that Chicken Tikka Masala is not an Indian dish at all. It is an exotic dish invented in Britain by people who came from Indian sub-continent for British customers.

How do Indian Restaurants work?

Most of the Indian restaurants that serve reasonably good tasting dishes employ about eight people. Depending on the size of the restaurant, there might even be more. Normally they are divided into two groups: kitchen staff and waiting staff. In the kitchen, chef is the leader, supervising the cooking of main courses, such as Tikka Masala. Next to him, the tandoori chef is another important person who is in charge of the charcoal oven, known as the Tandoor, where dry dishes such as Tandoori Chicken and the Nan breads are made. The third person, who is capable of taking the chef’s place on his days off, is known as the middle-man. The fourth person is the kitchen porter who prepares the typical ‘lettuce and carrot’ salads and helps everyone by washing and cleaning the kitchen and all the cutlery and dishes.

The restaurant part is the most formidable theatre, where most of the drama takes place in the restaurant trade. Unlike those working in the kitchen, the waiting staff usually work without a break for 6-7 hours non-stop. Usually the owner works as manager, but he often has a trusted right-hand man who handles duties on the floor, such as taking orders and phone calls, making up bills and, if he has time, chatting with customers.

In all cases, the hierarchy in Indian restaurants is based on who has been there longest and who is most trusted by the boss. It is hard, physical work for everyone, but waiters must also have sensibility and wit to succeed with their boss and the customers. Their performance and service is always under scrutiny, which is very stressful indeed. They are always under pressure to do better, yet there is not normally a system of staff training or incentives, and customers might be surprised to know that waiters including myself never got to keep our tips. This is no doubt one of the reasons why Iqbal Ahmed, who now runs some upmarket curry houses, wrote an editorial in Tandoori Magazine about the truth behind so many Indian waiters’ failure to give service with a smile.

Indian restaurant owners took Ahmed’s editorial very badly, however, and the majority of members of the Bangladesh Catering Industry boycotted his publisher Karan Bilimoria’s other business, which is Cobra beer. Nevertheless, Cobra beer has recovered its popularity in Indian restaurants and is one of the most popular beers in the UK.

Tikka Masala: How did it really start?

As long ago as the late nineteenth century, Rudyard Kipling wrote that eating curries was one of the main pleasures of living and working in India, and this love of Indian food remained with the English elite ever after, though few had the chance to eat it in England prior to the Second World War. These days, however, Indian curries, and ‘Tikka Masala’ in particular, have become established as household dishes for the average British family, even if they do not usually cook them at home. Going out for ‘an Indian’ is simply a national tradition, no less than heading for the chip shop on Fridays. Madhur Jeffrey has even claimed one cannot call oneself truly British without eating Chicken Tikka Masala and, just like fish and chips, it is a dish accessible to all, including those on most basic incomes.

Today much of the British people know that Chicken Tikka Masala is their national dish. They also know that ‘Tikka Masala’ is not technically a curry. In truth, Chicken Tikka Masala was never a dish that people of the Indian sub-continent knew to eat. It is a ‘curry’ only for those who have never eaten curry before. Tikka Masala, made with either chicken or lamb was invented by a group of humble chefs in West London in the early 1960s. Rumour has it that cooks and Indian restaurant owners there had become really fed up with the complaints from novice curry-eaters at the time, yet without them their emerging curry businesses could collapse.

“I need to work hard. I have got a lot of energy. I don’t mind working hard as long as I can
make my future out of it. But I don’t know what happens to me if I broke my back.” says
this handsome young man, who works more than 65 hours a week.

So one evening a chef who owned the restaurant had an idea: to pour some thick cream with an abundant amount of sugar on to the cooking. Once the cream, spices, colour and sugar blended perfectly after 5-7 minutes of cooking, it gave the dish a perfect flavour, tangy and rich, with an appealing red/orange colour. It turned out to be exactly what London’s early curry eaters would learn to love.

Thus Tikka Masala was invented out of a specific need by a group of cooks whose origin and identity remains unknown. Since then, the popularity of the red sugary, buttery, spicy and deliciously fattening Chicken or Lamb Tikka Masala has spread like fire on petrol across the nation. Today it is served not only in restaurants, but also in pubs, and sold as a take-away by Asians, but also by superstores.

Cooking curry is environmentally friendly!

Dr. Wayne Clark, an environmental scientist explains that to roast a chicken or beef joint requires an average of two hours cooking time. Similarly, to bake breads or potatoes or vegetables in the traditional British way is also a costly business, as far as fuel consumption is concerned. Thus Dr Clark – who is not an avid vindaloo eater himself – still admits the Indian way of cooking is one of the most efficient ways to survive, saving a large amount of energy and time.

But the truth of the matter is that when restaurants in Britain cook Chicken Tikka or Tandoori dishes, they use almost as much energy and money as the British do in their traditional cooking. Often it can take a great deal of time in terms of preparation and cooking to get the best flavours, not to mention in terms of energy consumption. Food preservation in
refrigerators is also an important factor as hardly any curries in Indian restaurants are freshly made. The fundamental ingredients are cooked well in advance, and this is what keeps staff in Indian restaurants very busy, for they are often busy cooking, even when the restaurants appear to be closed. Staff often work ten hours a day and their average working week is 60-65 hours.

Tikka Masala is for everyone

Until Indian food was introduced to Britain, French cuisine was the most popular foreign food. England’s manors and castles were full of French speaking aristocrats enjoying French cuisine, even while it remained a luxury for the rest of society. But unlike French cuisine, Chicken Tikka Masala and Indian cuisine has crossed all social boundaries, being popular with VIPs and ordinary people alike. Boxes of Indian Food have been delivered to Buckingham Palace, and there is hardly a politician or celebrity who does not love eating curry. A favourite haunt for the likes of Tony Blair and his friends, for example, is the upmarket Cinnamon Club run by Iqbal Ahmed in London.

Indian curries even have the blessing of the modern healthy eating campaign and celebrity chefs, such as Jamie Oliver, have championed them as far healthier food than burgers and fries, especially in his latest show on school dinners. Enjoying Indian cuisine is also a chance to explore India, which is vague, huge and unfathomable. Indian dishes too are extremely complex and vivid, and you can savour over 500 dishes in your average Indian restaurant. Much also depends on where the owners come from, for the term ‘Indian Restaurant’ hides many variations.

Initially everyone named their restaurants ‘Indian’, regardless of whether the owners came from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal or SriLanka. The key requirement in the early days was to make Indian restaurants accessible to UK customers, so the owners were happy to use blanket terms, such as Indian.

Wherever the owners and chef came from, apart from some bits and pieces on the menu, they offered a standard menu, with a mandatory list of around 50 starters and more than 150 main courses, side dishes and desserts. But as the British people learnt more about curry and curry houses became so popular, their owners began to show their true colours which also helped them to stand out in the market place.

Nowadays, restaurant owners are proud to announce where they come from and offer special, regional dishes, even though the truth is that 96% of all Indian restaurants in Britain are actually run by people from Bangladesh. Of those, about 99.5% come from Sylhet. And if we are honest, we must admit that most Indian cuisine consumed in Britain has
nothing much to do with what is eaten in India, let alone in Bangladesh.

Yet restaurants readily use cultural variations to make claims for their authenticity. If the chef comes from Gujarat or Islamabad, Kathmandu or Bihar, Dhaka or Bombay, the restaurant will certainly use that for the publicity. And if he is Polish – as does happen in London – then he simply isn’t mentioned.

Chicken Tikka Masala Today

Today Asian restaurateurs have acute problems finding people to work in the industry. Just as the popularity of their cuisine has become widespread and totally established, the depressing fact is that few of their UK-born people want to make a career out of the demanding, lowpaid jobs they have to offer.

Many UK-born Bangladeshi and Indian sons of the restaurant business do not wish to follow their fathers into the same trade, while daughters are never allowed to on principle. It may be due to family, education or even culture, but that does not take away from the fact that their forefathers have benefited UK society enormously.

Indian Restaurants in the UK are big business. They employ more than 90,000 people, yielding £3.5 billions. They have given a lot of people opportunities for employment, life and chance to see the world. True, many of them do not speak English and might not have been accounted for legally in terms of tax, regulations and benefits to society. But it must be recognised that the Indian restaurant trade has made a very significant social and economic contribution to this country, as well as giving many poor people from Asia the opportunity to live in Britain and support their families here and back home.

Let us see, twenty years down the line, whether Chicken Tikka Masala will still be known as Britain’s favourite dish,m served and prepared by people from the Asian sub-continent.

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