- The Pakistani-Scottish restaurateur and chef who is credited with cooking up the dish died last week in Glasgow.
Chicken Tikka Masala, much like Chicken Vindaloo, is not a staple dish known widely in Indian or Pakistani kitchens or restaurants (at least, till recently). Yet, it is ubiquitous in restaurants serving Indian cuisine around the world. Particularly so in Britain where, in 2001, it was declared “a true British national dish” by no less than the then-British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.
The Pakistani-Scottish restaurateur and chef, Ali Ahmed Aslam, who is widely credited (and, perhaps, widely disputed as well) with inventing the dish died last week in Glasgow, Scotland. He was 77. According to his son Asif Ali, Aslam (aka Ali), the cause of death was septic shock and organ failure after a prolonged illness.
Aslam, an ambitious and enterprising immigrant from Lahore in Pakistan, opened Shish Mahal, a tandoori restaurant in Glasgow in 1964. One fateful day in the 1970s, as the legend goes, a patron (presumably a white man) complained that the plain chicken tikka that he ordered for dinner was too spicy and dry. Aslam quickly fixed it by tipping the tandoor-grilled pieces of meat into a pan with a dash of condensed tomato soup. And the world cuisine was never the same again, even though Aslam himself didn’t think much about it.
The New York Times quoted his son saying, “He never really put so much importance on it … he just told people how he made it.” By the end of the 1970s chicken tikka masala became one of the most popular dishes in the United Kingdom.
But Aslam became a cause célèbre as the inventor of the “delicacy” when in 2009 a member of the Scottish Parliament, Mohammad Sarwar, made a well-publicized but failed bid to have the European Union recognize chicken tikka masala as a Glaswegian specialty.
Needless to say, soon after that, there were many claimants to the title. At least, several restaurants in Britain disputed Aslam’s claim. NPR quoted Monish Gujral, the head of the Indian restaurant chain Moti Mahal, saying “his grandfather was serving chicken tikka masala to Indian heads of state as early as 1947.”
NPR also quoted Leena Trivedi-Grenier, a freelance food writer who reportedly examined origin claims in 2017, as saying, “It’s kind of like: who invented chicken noodle soup … It’s a dish that could’ve been invented by any number of people at the same time.”
Nevertheless, despite the continuing debate about the origins of chicken tikka masala, Ali Ahmed Aslam will be remembered as the original “Curry King.” He is survived by his wife Kalsoom Akhtar, his son Ali, and other children — Shaista Ali-Sattar, Rashaid Ali, Omar Ali and Samiya Ali; and 13 grandchildren.