Tears on my Pilau

  • The List
  • 10 August 2009
Tikka Talk

Some Glaswegians want to claim chicken tikka masala for the city, but it’s hardly a jewel in our culinary heritage. Donald Reid opens up the tin of soup

Chicken tikka masala became legendary in 2001 when then foreign secretary Robin Cook dubbed it ‘a true British national dish’. What’s generally forgotten is that Cook wasn’t handing out gastronomic gongs but groping around politically for evidence of multicultural ‘Britishness’.

Then a few weeks ago, Glasgow Central MP Mohammed Sarwar backed a campaign for chicken tikka masala to be given PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) recognition in support of the claim of Shish Mahal owner Ali Ahmed Aslam that the dish was invented in his (then) Gibson Street restaurant in the early 1970s.

It smacks of opportunistic marketing, and the truth is that Glasgow’s curry scene can do a lot better for itself than scramble for bragging rights over a dish that’s hardly a triumph of culinary expertise. According to Ali’s account, the original recipe, made up on the spot, involved tossing pieces of chicken tikka into a sauce made from tinned tomato soup and a few spices. These days the soup tends to be ditched in favour of tinned tomatoes and cream or yoghurt. In other words the thread of authenticity doesn’t even stretch back to its origins, much debated as they are. The fact that the dish contains no ingredient with particular ties to Glasgow, Scotland or even Britain gives more credence to its status as the epitome of bland ubiquity than rarefied gastronomic treasure. In fact, by the PDO criteria, Sarwar’s campaign is dead in the water.

Moreover, walk into the Shish Mahal, now located on Park Road, or its recently arrived spin-off, the Shish Mahal Café on Woodlands Road, and you’ll struggle to find the supposedly venerated dish on the menu – it’s there, but buried in a typically vast menu. CTM has become a mainstay of ready meals and airline food, disdained by most respectable modern Indian/Bangladeshi restaurants. Many serve chicken tikka chasni, no more authentic than CTM but certainly less brutalised. Chasni, which uses mango chutney to create a sweet-and-sour effect, is claimed by Balbir Singh Sumal, founder of the Ashoka in 1973 and now proprietor of three restaurants in Glasgow. Talk to Balbir and he’ll tell you that ‘cooking is like jazz, not classical music. It’s about improvisation, and is evolving all the time.’

If anything, it’s the nostalgia stirred up by these debates that’s the most engaging part of the story. From the pioneer days of the Green Gates on Bank Street to the heyday of the Shish and the Taj Mahal in the 1970s, through the Ashoka/Harlequin domination of Charan Gill, there’s some rich – and rarely uncontested – history. The last decade has seen the emergence of Monir Mohammed’s Wee Curry Shop and Mother India restaurants, Balbir’s return to the scene with his focus on healthier Indian food, and the focus on regional cooking offered by restaurants such as the Dhabba. Glasgow serves some great curries. Best not to taint that reputation by focussing too much on chicken tikka masala.

Take Three: Scotland’s PDO/PGI foods

The origin of the haggis may be in doubt, but these foods are undoubtedly, certifiably from these fair lands.

Arbroath Smokie
With PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status, the name ‘Arbroath Smokie’ can only be used to describe haddock smoked in the traditional manner within an 8km radius of Arbroath. It is proper recognition for one of the few Scottish traditional processing methods to maintain a close identity with its place of origin. It’s also lovely food.

Stornoway black pudding
Like chicken tikka masala, the campaign to protect the style of black pudding (marag dubh) made on the island of Lewis was quickly picked up by politicians and created a merry little media bubble for a while last year. The application for PGI status is currently undergoing initial assessment at EU level.

Shetland lamb
One of only a few Scottish examples of the stricter and more specific PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, which is ‘open to products which are produced, processed and prepared within a particular geographical area, and with features and characteristics, which must be due to the geographical area’.

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