By Star Noor
Photos: By Star Noor
Every recipe has an origin and a story. What’s in a name? And, how did the mainstay dishes we so take for granted come from? Does the story of food matter as much as the recipes themselves?
The answer, at least for me, is yes. Yes, yes, yes. Food connects us. Food makes us join around the table to break bread (well, most of us); it inspires us to share; it teaches us about each other’s cultures. It nourishes our mind, bodies, and spirits. So yes, understanding food history is as important as understanding what each ingredient does, and how to put these elements together to produce our own original “traditional meals”.
Chicken tikka masala is an Indian dish, undoubtedly. But, its inception is a subject of debate and mystery – not unlike much of the rest of the culture of beautiful, fragrant India. In the U.S., Indian food is still “acquired taste”, but in countries like Scotland and Great Brittan, it’s as much a part of the food culture as meat, potatoes, and cabbage so much so that it inspired then British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to exclaim it should be made a national dish back in 2001: “”Chicken Tikka Masala 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.” He went on to explain that “Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The Masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.””
A British national dish, he says? But, how can this be? The origins of this dish, as mentioned before, are shrouded in creamy speculation.
According to some, it is a dish pre-dating British rule in India, made during the Mughal era. The Mughal’s were Persianites who ruled over the Indian Subcontinent and Afghanistan. Though a part of the vast reaching Persian empire, the Mughals were Turco-Mongol in origin, decedents of Genghis Khan (founder of the Mongol Empire which began in East Asia, through his son Chagatai Khan), and Timur (the Turco-Mongol conqueror who founded the Timurid Empire). Why am I telling you all this?
If you know anything about the regional food of the Turic people, most evident in the culinary cultures of the Turks these days, which is heavily tomato based, you’d understand why this theory would make sense, as tikka masala simply is a spiced curry based creamy tomato sauce. So, it would make sense that a culinary culture which adores the use of tomatoes a la carte, would create such a dish immersed both in the cultures of the conquerors and those they ruled.
But another, and perhaps more interesting idea has emerged. One that has the British Isles concurring an Indian dish as a part of their beloved foods, the whole over. The medley of this dish, is absolutely interesting indeed. The story goes, as best described by the son of the Indian Food restaurant owner who operated out of Glasgow, Scotland in the early 1970’s. Pakistani chef, Ali Ahmed Aslam, as told by Asif Ali, was working one evening and, “On a typical dark, wet Glasgow night a bus driver coming off shift came in and ordered a chicken curry. He sent it back to the waiter saying it’s dry. At the time Dad had an ulcer and was enjoying a plate of tomato soup. So he said why not put some tomato soup into the curry with some spices. They sent it back to the table and the bus driver absolutely loved it. He and his friends came back again and again and we put it on the menu.”
Either way this dish was created, it is a delish dish that I decided to share with two of my close and dear friends, Randy and Scott, a few nights back. I wanted to share this sweet and sultry dish with you: creamy in constancy, with a bit of smoke, the savory taste of marinated chicken (traditionally grilled on open fire, but here simply seared and simmered); the crisp of the vegetable medley, the aromatic bite of the spices including jalapeno and chili peppers is a burst of goodness. Traditionally eaten with naan, a type of bread also from the era of the Persian Empire, here it is served with another traditionally Mediterranean dish, couscous which is light, filling, and a lot good for you. I am immersed in the beautiful culture of India any chance I get. What this immense and long existing civilization and culture has brought to the cultures of the globe over is absolutely astonishing. At the epicenter of civilization, this incredible land of people who the likes of Buddha arose from, and the amazing centuries long struggle of honor balanced with freedom, which flourished into the third biggest religion in the world, India’s cuisine is rich both in history and taste.
Note: The word tikka in Hindu means pieces, but in this recipe I’ve kept the chicken whole. I also have some none-traditional ingredients in this version like tequila.
1 cup yogurt
2 tbsp. cumin
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. cinnamon
2 tbsp. red pepper
2 tbsp. black pepper
1 tbsp. salt
1 tbsp. cumin
1 tbsp. garam masala
2 tbsp. coriander
1 tbsp. paprika
1 tbsp. herbs de Province (rosemary, sage, thyme – fresh, minced)
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken pieces (you may opt to chunk into 1 inch pieces)
1 onion, sliced
1 cup baby spinach leaves
1 cup sweet peppers, halved
¼ bunch asparagus, cut into thirds
1 jalapeno, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 cup anise stalk and leaves, chopped and veins of stalks removed
½ cup carrots, diced
1 cup half and half
¼ cup tequila (the better the quality of tequila, the better the sauce will taste).
2 large tomatoes, boiled, peeled, mashed
1 bay leaf
4 cups water
2 tbsp. coconut oil
Sea salt, and red pepper to taste
2 cups couscous
¼ dried porcini mushrooms
1 tbsp. cilantro, minced
½ tbsp. garlic, minced
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 cups water
Black salt and pepper to taste
In a large mixing bowl, add all of the ingredients for the marinade and mix well. Add the chicken and mix well to coat evenly. Cover and set in the fridge to marinade for at least 2 hours, up to two days.
In a medium saucepan, bring the water and the bay leaf to a rolling boil on high heat. Add tomatoes and boil for 15 minutes or until the tomatoes are tender and the skins are cracked. Strain, and set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, in a large deep frying pan, add all of the curry spices save the herbs de Provence to the dry pan on low heat. Roast the spices for about 20 seconds.
Add the coconut oil and onions. Turn heat up to high.
Once the oil glistens sear the chicken to a golden color on both sides.
Meanwhile, peel and mash the cooled tomatoes.
Add the garlic and the herbs de Provence to the pan. Turn heat down to medium.
Deglaze the pan with tequila. Add all of the vegetables and crushed tomatoes to the pan and stir well to mix in with other ingredients.
Add the cream. Mix well. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, making sure to stir occasionally to keep the cream from scorching.
Heat 2 cups of water to boil in a medium saucepan. Add the mushrooms and couscous to the water and remove from heat. Set aside for about five minutes, the couscous will swell and absorb the water.
Add the couscous and mushroom mixture to a medium mixing bowl. Add all other ingredients and carefully fold them into the mixture.
Place in the fridge for at least thirty minutes, or keep at room temperature.