Chicken Tikka Masala

Image: Daily Express features white Briton offended that curry house sees him as a white person.

I was looking through some old files and found a medical school admissions essay I wrote in 2001. Case Western asked applicants to write about something outside of medicine.

I wrote about chicken tikka masala, a long-standing interest of mine that had become more relevant with a speech by Labour minister Robin Cook that is still known as the "Chicken Tikka Masala Speech".

Below the break, my chicken tikka masala medical school application essay. But if you're going to read just one chicken tikka masala think-piece by a white guy, read Cook's speech. It underlines that Brexit politics are not new debates. 

And check out this long Guardian article updating the politics of "curry houses" in Britain. Super interesting article. (Except for the last line, which overstates the case. Donald Trump does not like tacos. He advertised eating "taco salad" on Cinco de Mayo while proclaiming "I love Hispanics!" which was troll-speak for "I enjoy humiliating Mexicans". I still do believe in taquerias and curry houses as political forces for good.)

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The Chicken Tikka Masala Project

For the last several years, I have been conducting an international comparative study of Indian and Pakistani restaurants, and in particular, of chicken tikka masala.

Chicken tikka masala consists of chunks of chicken with a coating of yogurt, baked in a tandoori oven, and then immersed in a sauce that varies widely from restaurant to restaurant. A masala is a "mix" and thus the nature of the mix depends, it seems, on the person doing the mixing. In general, chicken tikka masala goes one of two directions: it has either a tomato-based sauce, or a creamy curry sauce. An older recipe, called murg masala, is similar to the creamy curry; because of its similarity, and also because murg masala is so tasty, I decided on broad inclusion criteria that allowed murg masala into my study.

I have eaten chicken tikka masala or near-equivalents in a number of San Francisco restaurants, as well as in the following cities: New York, Paris, Barcelona, Geneva, New York, Sacramento, Washington, Bethesda, and Atlanta. At first, this was simply a hobby, a simple add-on to ongoing efforts to find the best lemonade and the best burrito. I started calling it a comparative study in Geneva, when I explained the project to a medical anthropologist colleague of mine in order to maneuver our meeting to a restaurant where I could sample another chicken tikka masala. We'd been talking about what I was going to do with my life, and she wryly remarked: "Whether you like it or not," she replied, "you have the mind of a scientist."

The main finding of my study is that chicken tikka masala is a chameleon of a meal, with its own unique features but often adapting to the places around it. Chicken tikka masala in Barcelona was particularly heavy on the tomato sauce, and mild; it tasted like one of several sorts of Spanish tapas. Chicken tikka masala in Atlanta had something like a heavy barbecue sauce. It's true that on the Left Bank of the Seine, the chicken tikka masala was blazingly spicy and not at all like French cuisine. But the fact that the waiters were frighteningly good at the formal aspects of their jobs but never made nice, and the extreme and un-French spice of the dish, added up to something paradoxically French. In order to serve a Parisian chicken tikka masala, the waiters had to act French while serving food fiery enough to convince a Parisian of its authenticité.

The best chicken tikka masala–and I realize that purists may debate this finding–was actually a murg masala, in New York. The restaurant was filled with New York's typical blend of international hipsters, which may explain the food's excellence: for that crowd, it had to be a global dish, the pinnacle of all local versions.

There is a reason that chicken tikka masala takes on qualities of its surroundings; indeed, that was the goal of its creation. While chicken tikka masala scholars evidently disagree, several histories suggest that it may have been Bangladeshi cooks in Britain in the 1960s who first poured on the sauce in order to sell tandoori chicken. At any rate, it's clear that whether it was Bangladeshis, Indians or Pakistanis who created it, the dish is a recent creation, at least partly tailored to British tastes.

Earlier this year, the dish became a political metaphor. Robin Cook, who at that time was the British foreign secretary, managed to work the dish into an election-season criticism of Tory policies on immigration and asylum: "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." Not long after the election was done, the Labour Party demoted Cook, and the British newspaper The Guardian speculated that what became known as the "chicken tikka masala speech" may have been part of the reason. Apparently, many British people weren't ready to be a masala nation.

And indeed, chicken tikka masala may be as much a case study of immigrants' innovative responses to a new and not entirely friendly culture as it is a sign of British multiculturalism. So people in Britain complain when their meat has no gravy? You adapt: take the tandoori chicken back to the kitchen and pour whatever you can mix together on top of it, and meat with gravy they shall have. Chicken tikka masala–like pizza, chow mein, the blues and making a big deal out of Hanukkah–is an invention of a diaspora, full of the influence of home but not in itself of the homeland. Like many such inventions, it is a small bit of pleasure born of difficult circumstances.

Though I have to concede that New York's version bested it on strictly objective grounds, my sentimental favorite chicken tikka masala is served at a San Francisco restaurant called Zante Pizza and Indian Cuisine. The restaurant is owned by an Indian man who, when he first arrived in the United States, worked at a pizza place in Brooklyn. He then moved to San Francisco, where he bought a pizza restaurant that had apparently been named, for whatever reason, after a Greek island. He kept the name. He also kept serving pizza, but added an Indian food menu. Of course, such a restaurant would almost have to make a great chicken tikka masala, and it does.

As if that wasn't enough, Zante's owner invented a work of true genius: Indian pizza. You can have the pizza topped with meat or vegetables or both, all baked in a tandoori oven. Sag paneer, a curried spinach puree, substitutes for the tomato sauce of the pizzas of the past, and since it's usually served with cheese anyway, it turns out to be a natural for pizza. Though some are skeptical on arrival, none who eat it leave unconverted. Zante's Indian pizza is a unique achievement: the chicken tikka masala of the twenty-first century.


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