As I sat and had lunch with my colleagues in London, we got into a conversation about British food that I need to try before I leave. Immersed in a conversation about Sunday roasts, mashed potatoes and sausages, I almost fell off my chair when one of my colleagues looked right at me and told me to try chicken tikka masala “the national food of Britain.”
I stared her down with a look of bewilderment until she finally caught on and went on to clarify that though chicken tikka masala was technically South Asian, its popularity in Britain had made it the national food. I went back home and immediately Googled “chicken tikka masala” and was brought into the world of controversy and scandal surrounding a dish that tasted bland and underwhelming.
As I swallowed my chicken tikka masala, I read about how Robin Cook the British foreign secretary in 2001 announced Chicken Tikka Masala(CTM) as “British national dish.” Cook passed CTM for being delicious and achieving the status of British national food “not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.”
*coughs, Brexit, coughs*
The origination of tikka masala is said to have happened in a restaurant in Delhi when a European traveller asked the cook to change his chicken tikka (an actual Indian dish) and make it less dry. Frustrated, the cook stomped into the kitchen, opened a box of Campbell's soup and dumped it onto the spicy chicken tikka and that was the birth of your beloved chicken tikka masala
Tikka masala represents a phenomenon that Indians have been observed to undertake frequently - the molding and fixing of something authentically Indian to fit the taste of Britishers or the Western world in general.
I studied in a private English school, where I was told to speak in English whenever I could. Hindi, my native language, was seen as something you spoke at home or when talking to lower classes. The elite in India conform to this strategy of molding their authentic Indian-self to one that is more Western in order to uphold their class status and identity as someone who is not inferior.
When I came to the states, I conformed to an American lifestyle by dressing a certain way and talking a certain way in order to match the taste of the American elite. My parents warned me against activism or anything else that would make me stand out as a brown woman who did not comply to the bland taste of the white elite of the world. I was told to become their chicken tikka masala.
While Britain differs in the states in the sense that Britain has done a stellar job in “absorbing” Indian culture with numerous South Asian restaurants, stores, chai chains, made in India clothes and whitewashed Indian food, they seem to struggle accepting brown people. (ahem, Brexit)
With a substantial rise against South Asian and brown individuals in Britain, the media refuses to cover stories and give due importance to attacks against brown, specifically Muslim women in Britain. Living in East London, an area well known for acid attacks against South Asian women in London, I am surprised by the lack of safety measures taken by the government in order to protect individuals belonging to the same culture whose food they so thoroughly enjoy.
How can we go about decolonising this phenomenon of chicken tikka masala?