I remember my first curry well; a group of colleagues at my first workplace invited me along to their monthly visit to an Indian restaurant. I accepted, but did not think much to it as my mum made me curries at home – half a tub of curry powder, chicken and some sultanas, easy. The night of the curry was a revelation to me; I thoroughly enjoyed the meal and was hooked. I could not wait to go back to work my way through the menu. I was not so keen to try the Phaal, the hottest dish on the menu ordered by one of my bosses, Pete Moores, who clearly ordered the dish to try and impress the rest of us. I still remember his bright red face with sweat dripping down it as he forced down his second (and last) forkful. This seems to be the view of many people who have not sampled Indian food; many times I have heard people say “I don’t like eating hot and spicy food”. But spicy does not necessarily mean hot, as the spices are there to add flavour with the heat coming from chillies. This is probably where the British love of Chicken tikka masala (CTM) came from. In 2001 Robin Cook famously stated “Chicken tikka masala is now Britain's true 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”. Whilst there is clearly some politico-speak in there “we’re multi-cultural” etc Mr Cook was right; an estimated 23 million portions of CTM are sold every year, which equates to one in every7 seven curries.
Typically CTM is the introduction to Indian restaurant foods as it is usually the mildest curry on the menu. But beware, a survey by the Real Curry Guide showed that of the 48 restaurants tested, the only common ingredient was chicken, meaning that hot CTM’s could exist.
So where does the dish come from? Clearly its roots are Indian or as some say Pakistani, but most theories claim the dish was invented in the UK. Indeed, many restaurants claim to be the one that first created it, but again the time of this invention varies from the 1950s to the 1970s. A popular story is that CTM was invented in Glasgow in the late 1960s when a customer asked for some gravy to accompany his chicken. The chef created a sauce using Heinz tomato soup, cream and spices. This could be true as the first chicken tandoori offered by a British restaurant appeared on the menu of the Gaylord, London, in 1966. So the recipe could conceivably made its way to Glasgow shortly afterwards. However another artcile about the history of CTM says the word ‘tikka’ first appeared in the the English dictionary in 1955. Tikka is an important part of the dish and is made by marinding chicken in a spice mix and then cooking it in a tandoor clay oven. The tandoor oven was invented around 5,000 years ago but tikka dates from the 1500s when Babur, a descendant of Mongol warlord Genghis Khan conquered Punjab. Babur was to say the least a tyrant. He threatened his chefs with their lives if he were to find any bones in his chicken. So to ensure there were not, the chefs chopped the chicken into small pieces and cooked them in the tandoor oven. This became known as joleh (Persian for chicken) tikka.
Over time this recipe changed with the addition of yoghurt to marinate it and spices but was not brought to Britain until the 1950s when immigrants from the Indian sub-continent saw many restaurants to be opened. Currently there are 9,500 Indian restaurants in the UK; however, the majority of what we call Indian restaurants are run by Bangladeshis.
A choice of 9,500 is of course a huge one and the few times we moved house in the UK was followed by a painstaking search to find “our” takeaway. Once the takeaway was located I was able to carry on with my curry addiction. I knew I had an addiction when I would call to order a curry and the waiter would recognise me and say “hi Andy, how are you?” I could also tell when my favourite takeaway had a different chef on by the taste of my favourite dish which despite this article is probably Madras. It would appear I am not the only addict. A few years back some friends of mine received a letter from BT detailing how they could save money when dialling their 10 most dialled numbers. Helpfully BT had listed these numbers. My friends recognised 9 of the numbers as Aunty Hilda, mum and dad etc, but the third most dialled number was not familiar. Eventually they found out it was the number of their local Indian restaurant.
Since moving to Spain I have found some decent restaurants (sorry, no free adverts in this article!) but I do not understand the high prices charged for curry in Spain. In the UK a takeaway for two would typically cost about £15 pounds. But the same quantity of food in Spain is likely to be €30 or more. The price, and not living near to an Indian restaurant has turned me into an obsessive curry cook and I spend hours researching and making Indian food. So 25-years on and I am still hooked!
Here is one of the nicest, simplest and quickest recipes I have found and is called Garlic chicken chaat.
Serves 4, Preparation Time 10-minutes. Cooking Time 20-30 minutes.
700g chicken breast, skinned and boned
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 ½ tsps ground coriander
¼ tsp ground turmeric
¼ - ½ tsp chilli powder
1 ½ tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsps coriander leaves, finely chopped
Heat the salt, garlic, coriander, turmeric and chilli powder in the oil for 2 minutes
Add the chicken and stir fry until cooked.
Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice then drain. Sprinkle on the coriander leaves and mix.
Serving ideas: Serve with a vegetable side-dish or with a crisp green salad with mixed peppers.
Alternatively wrap in a chapatti or tortilla wrap with lettuce and mint yoghurt sauce.