Friday, October 27, 2006

The UK loves the CTM


I was in Waitrose the other day (I know, I know, but it's the nearest Supermarket to my flat) and happened to be wandering through the 'ready meal' aisle on my way to the wholesome organic food section (ahem). Needless to say there was a massive selection of Chinese, British, Mexican, Thai stuff - but the biggest geographical stodgepile on offer came from the Indian subcontinent, in the form of over a dozen different curries. Three of them were variations of chicken tikka masala - which I have heard on a few occasions being called 'Britain's favourite dish'. So I chucked one into my basket next to the organic tofu cutlets and dolphin friendly fair trade eggs, and headed home (after being deprived of a small fortune - come back Somerfield!!)

The dictionary definition of 'tikka' is "an Indian dish of small pieces of meat or vegetables marinated in a spice mixture. ORIGIN from Punjabi ṭikkā," whereas 'masala' comes from the "Urdu maṣālaḥ, based on Arabic maṣāliḥ ‘ingredients, materials'." So it seems Britain's most popular curry basically means 'bits of things marinated in a mixture of materials', hence the disdain foodies treat it with, and the reason the rest of us love it so much. Legend has it the dish originated over here, possibly in Glasgow around the late 1960's. The BBC E-cyclopedia has it that 'one obstinate diner demanded gravy on tandoori chicken. A bemused chef responded by adding a tin of Campbell's tomato soup and pinch of spices', unwittingly creating the culinary masterpiece.

Britian seems to have become entirely reliant on CTM (as us lazy abbreviating bloggers like to call it) - indeed I read somewhere once that British firms now export it to India, although that's probably a 'selling ice to eskimos' style urban myth. Or Inuit, as they have to be called, of course. In 2001, Sainsburys sold 1.8m CTM ready meals, and CTM sandwiches are the most popular chosen from Marks and Spencer's range, they shift a whopping 18 tonnes a week. Although that figure includes 8 tonnes of soggy lettuce. UK curry houses - we have more of those than fish and chip shops - shift 23million portions each year, which if stacked in a tower would be 2770 times taller than the Millenium Dome - probably my favourite curry fact. And don't call them 'Indian Restaurants' either - 85% of them in the UK are owned and operated by Bangladeshis.

As it's origins are lost in the mists of culinary time, the exact makeup of CTM is something of a controversy. The UK's 8000 curry houses (half of which are in Rusholme) will all have slight variations on the theme - although the majority start with a tomato base, rather than the onion base used for traditional Indian curries. But not all do, however - in 1998 the Real Curry Guide visited 48 CTM purveyors, and found the only common ingredient in all was chicken (somewhat thankfully, I'll bet). According to 'Is it or isn't it - the chicken tikka masala story' - "CTM can be yellow, red, brownish or even green and can be very creamy, a little creamy, chilli hot or quite mild".

The late Robin Cook, former British Foreign Secretary (who used to live around the corner from me) once famously said "...Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British 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. Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The Massala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy." In other words, the British had a noble effort to try and assimilate a foreign flavour into our national identity, but found it ultimately too alien for our unadventurous tastebuds and hybridised it into another creation by swamping it in gravy (the answer to most problems with British cooking). They aren't half nice though. Anyway, I'm off for a Chinese. Can I get you anything?

The Chicken Tikka Massala story
CTM recipe