Ahmed Aslam Ali, the Glasgow chef who many believe invented chicken tikka masala, died at 77 on December 19. Ali created the dish by improvising a sauce made from a tin of tomato soup at his restaurant in the 1970s. His death was announced by the same restaurant, Shish Mahal, which closed for 48 hours as a mark of respect. Ali was originally from Punjab, Pakistan, and moved with his family to Glasgow as a young boy before opening Shish Mahal in Glasgow’s West End in 1964.
— SHISH MAHAL (@SHISHMAHAL1) December 19, 2022
He apparently came up with the recipe for chicken tikka masala after a customer complained that his chicken tikka was too dry. According to Dawn, he said he wanted the dish to be a gift to Glasgow, to give something back to his adopted city.
But the famous dish’s origin has been highly debated over the years, and not everybody was happy with Ali getting the credit for it. In BBC’s Instagram post reporting his death, many Indians flooded the comments calling out the company for “not getting their facts straight”.
People have mixed opinions regarding the origin of the dish. Chicken Tikka originated in the Indian Subcontinent during the Mughal Era. That much is true. And many still attribute the Chicken Tikka Masala, the less dry version of the Tikka, to Ali. But as reported by Style, Ashutosh Bisht, restaurant manager of Bombay Dreams in Hong Kong believes the tale is folklore. There are a number of variations on the origin story, however, all agree that its beginnings were accidental improvisation.
Chicken tikka masala is one of Britain’s favorite curries. You can find it on the shelves of major supermarkets like Sainsbury’s and in the restaurants of London’s Curry Mile. Food from the Indian subcontinent has long influenced British cuisine. Dishes such as coronation chicken and balti dishes, all took their inspiration from the food brought to Britain from India. Tikka masala has even become one of Britain’s national dishes in the process.
After the end of British rule in the Indian subcontinent, immigration levels to the UK increased rapidly. South Asians brought their culinary expertise to their new home. They adjusted a lot of these recipes to their new customer’s tastebuds, thus inventing newer recipes. The Guardian explains in a report, that there are over 10,000 curry houses in the UK, employing over 80,000 staff and serving around 2.5 million customers every week.
Regardless of origin, Shish Mahal remains among Scotland’s most iconic eateries, and Mr Ali’s passing is a great loss to the food community world over. In the aftermath of colonisation, we may have lost the stories behind several of our most cherished foods. But what we still have with us is the rich contribution to South Asian cuisines that Ali and his contemporaries left behind.