Chicken Tikka Masala - A True British National Dish | Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies
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Chicken Tikka Masala - A True British National Dish

The reading on courseweb, “The Globalization of Food,” reminded me of a project I did for a globalization class at Chatham.  For this project, I found myself researching Indian food, particularly the globalization/Westernization of Indian food and how its authenticity has been forfeited because of it.  “Globalization of Food” discussed Indian restaurants in America, but it made me think of the integration of these restaurants in Europe as well, particularly in the United Kingdom.

In the early 2000s, former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, in a speech to the Social Market Foundation in London, declared the popular dish, chicken tikka masala “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.” Although this statement has widely been accepted as fact (I must say, I don’t really know how national dishes are selected, although this dish is measurably very popular in the UK), it always struck me as fairly hilarious, considering the history of chicken tikka masala.

Similar dishes had been cultivated and perfected by Indian chefs for generations, but as the legend goes, this specific dish was created in England by a chef who combined traditional Indian ingredients with a can of Campbell’s tomato soup to please customers who accused the dish of being too dry.  (The authenticity of this story is highly debated.  Some say it did not happen this way at all, and of course, those who are of a similar opinion to Robin Cook may try to argue for the dish’s authenticity—but Glasgow, Scotland [not nearly India!] has continuously tried to stake claim to the dish and almost every source I can find says that it developed out of an attempt to appease Western palates.  In addition to this, every recipe I can find requires a can of tomato soup, which doesn’t sound very authentic to me!)

Cook’s claim, then, that chicken tikka masala is “a true British national dish” couldn’t be more accurate, but probably not with the meaning that he intended.  Furthermore, his point that the dish’s popularity showcases Britain’s ability to “absorb and adapt” external influences falls completely flat. Surely absorption and adaptation to different cultures shouldn’t equate to an erasure of part of that culture—but unfortunately, that happens all too often.  Instead of this practice being condemned (or even acknowledged!) it can be seen as a sign of how progressive, tolerant, and multicultural the country is becoming.

“Authentic foreign” food, seems to me at least, a near impossibility to find in the Western world.  What struck me the most about my research on this topic was how much care traditional Indian chefs put into their cooking.  The balance of hot spices and cool creams is important.  Everything has a pairing and an equilibrium.  Some believe that if an “unclean” (literally or morally) person prepares your food, you will also become unclean.  Food, its preparation and its consumption are often treated as a sacred events, and that’s something you just don’t see at restaurants (or at many peoples’ dining tables at home) in the Western world.  Westerners tend to eat quickly and often and not think too much about it, and this makes the globalization of other cultures’ cuisines an even bigger shame.

I won’t lie—I enjoy eating Indian food as much as anyone else, but I know that food in India itself is probably extraordinarily different from how it is here.  I tend to view most “foreign” restaurants as American-“whatever-the-cuisine-imitates.”  Yet I still find myself messaging my friend who is interning in France right now, “You have to try this French bakery I just went to!  It’s authentic.”  I wonder if there’s any way for us to know what true authenticity means in food.  Sure, it might be a little easier to weed out some of the fakes if we’ve travelled to different countries, but what about the food preparation process I mentioned above?  Indian food is not just about its quality; it’s about the preparation, the care, and even the chef him/herself.  If those things, for example, are not replicated, is the food truly authentic, even if all the ingredients are correct?

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