The Legendary Story Behind Chicken Tikka Masala and Its Creator, Ali Ahmed Aslam

Tikka Masala and Its Creator, Ali Ahmed Aslam

The Legendary Story Behind Chicken Tikka Masala and Its Creator, Ali Ahmed Aslam

Chicken tikka masala – the tantalizing tomato, yogurt and spice-infused curry dish – enjoys recognition across the world as a beloved staple of Indian restaurant menus and takeout offerings. But the origins of this flavorful dish have an added element of local legend and mystery.

The story dates back over five decades to Glasgow, Scotland, where a young Pakistani immigrant named Ali Ahmed Aslam found himself improvising in the kitchen to appease a fussy customer at his restaurant, Shish Mahal. That spontaneous recipe alteration birthed chicken tikka masala – a culinary innovation that would catapult beyond the restaurant to eventually become an iconic symbol of multiculturalism in modern Britain.

The Early Days of Ali Ahmed Aslam

To trace the early days of chicken tikka masala’s creation, we must go back to before entrepreneur Ali Ahmed Aslam ever stepped foot in Glasgow. He was born in 1938 in Punjab province, which became part of Pakistan after partition from India in 1947. Details about Aslam’s childhood are scant, but it’s been reported he moved from Pakistan to Glasgow at age 12 as a young boy.

It was in Glasgow that Aslam got his start in the restaurant industry. He worked in restaurants around the city before opening his own establishment in the 1960s. Curry houses and eateries serving Indian fare were just starting to expand in Glasgow, catering to the growing South Asian communities which included many families like Aslam’s who had migrated from Pakistan and India.

The Opening of Shish Mahal

In 1964, Aslam opened the Shish Mahal restaurant in Glasgow’s west end. The small 25-seat eatery was early to capitalize on the emerging popularity of Indian restaurants in Britain. Dishes like balti curry were taking off, and Aslam strived to craft authentic dishes using various spices and ingredients.

Shish Mahal embraced the traditional tandoor clay oven for making breads and tandoori chicken, which came out perfectly tender and flavored by the smoky oven. As the restaurant grew popular with locals, it started attracting celebrity diners like members of the popular rock bands of the era who were touring through the city.

Over time, Shish Mahal earned acclaim as an innovator by being early to introduce new dishes to the Glasgow culinary scene such as chicken pakora. But Aslam’s most famous recipe invention was still to come…

The Birth of Chicken Tikka Masala

The origins of chicken tikka masala have been recounted by Ali Ahmed Aslam in various interviews over the years. By all accounts, the popular dish now beloved around the world can be traced back to a fateful evening in the 1970s at Shish Mahal.

As the legend goes, one night a customer complained that their chicken tikka – boneless, marinated pieces cooked in the tandoor – was too dry. Adaptive restaurateur Aslam sprang into action, hoping to craft a quick solution that would satisfy the customer. He riffed on the basic chicken tikka recipe by bringing together a makeshift sauce made from tomato soup, fresh yogurt, cream and an array of traditional Indian spices.

The resulting chicken dish with the improvised creamy tomato gravy was an instant hit with the customer. As Aslam recounted to one British media outlet years later: “It was a wonderful feeling when the first person tasted it, they wanted more and more.”

And just like that, chicken tikka masala was born thanks to some behind-the-scenes restaurant ingenuity. The dish immediately became a popular menu item, counts Andleeb Ahmed, Aslam’s nephew who helps run Shish Mahal. Its popularity quickly exploded as word of mouth spread.

Ali Ahmed Aslam
Ali Ahmed Aslam

The improvised origin story of chicken tikka masala is the stuff of local legend in Glasgow. (Image credit: Business Inside India)

Glasgow Curry Icon – The Rise of Chicken Tikka Masala

In the years after its impromptu invention, chicken tikka masala rode a wave of soaring popularity – becoming first a staple of Glasgow’s lively curry house scene before expanding as a cherished featured dish throughout Britain and abroad.

By the 1980s and 90s, chicken tikka masala had become a highlight menu item of Indian restaurants across the UK. Its rich, inviting gravy sauce coating chicken tikka morsels offered the perfect bridge between traditional Indian flavors and British palates. Sweet, savory and undeniably creamy and comforting, chicken tikka masala had mass crossover appeal.

The dish was so beloved it led to proclamations of being “Britain’s true national dish” – capturing the very multicultural fabric of modern British culture and identity better than stale contenders like fish and chips. Chicken tikka masala had clearly captured the British imagination – the snack even made appearances in TV shows and films as shorthand for Indian fare.

Its wild popularity in UK eateries paved the way for chicken tikka masala to start appearing internationally on the menus of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants. Today it remains many diners’ go-to choice for an accessible yet flavorful curry meal. By some estimates, it constitutes up to 30% of sales at curry houses across Britain.

And it all traces back to Ali Ahmed Aslam and his serendipitous recipe improvisation decades ago. His clever solution to an unhappy diner made his little restaurant Shish Mahal into an anchor of Glasgow’s curry scene. The once 25-seat eatery is now a local institution, having served luminaries like British prime ministers over its nearly 60 year run.

Not that Aslam set out with ambitions of such fame. For him, chicken tikka masala was just part of a lifelong dedication and passion for the restaurant business. “He loved feeding people,” recalled his nephew Andleeb Ahmed after Aslam’s death. The origins may have been unintentional, but there’s no denying Aslam’s creation took on a life of its own as a sensation synonymous with modern British dining culture.

Debates Around Origins – Butter Chicken Link?

Like many dishes with extensive cultural influence and a decades-long history, debates still swirl around the exact origins of this creamy tomato curry dish. While Ali Ahmed Aslam’s backstory has become legend and his role recognized through tributes in Glasgow, some suggest his improvised recipe may have deeper roots.

In India, the dish butter chicken has a strikingly similar creation narrative dating back to the mid 20th century – well before Aslam’s chicken tikka masala eureka moment. The story goes that a chef hoping to make tandoori chicken more moist and flavorful blended a tomato and butter sauce, another culinary innovation that became instantly popular.

With such parallel stories, speculation charges that Aslam may have adapted the butter chicken recipe after encountering it on visits to India and Pakistan. However, his family and many food historians maintain chicken tikka masala as we know it today traces specifically to Aslam’s kitchen experiments with fusion flavors amid Glasgow’s simmering curry scene.

At the least, it’s evident that these two tomato-rich, cream-laden chicken dishes share major similarities and an evolution that adapted traditional Indian cuisine to more Western sensibilities. Yet debates around the exact origins persist in some circles, questioning whether chicken tikka masala should be considered a truly British or Indian national dish.

In any case, Ali Ahmed Aslam’s name and restaurant remain icons firmly connected to chicken tikka masala in the minds of most Brits. And the backstory of improvising the recipe to please a customer has only enhanced the dish’s legendary status on its path to global fame.

Protecting Glasgow’s Culinary Legacy

The yearly popularity of chicken tikka masala on UK restaurant menus spawned appreciation for the dish, but also led to calls for historical recognition and protection given its identity as a Glasgow original.

A high watermark came in 2009 when politician Mohammad Sarwar campaigned for European Union designation of chicken tikka masala as a “protected geographical status” product tied specifically to Glasgow – similar to protections given to food icons like Champagne, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Naples-style pizza.

The ambitious campaign to legally certify Glasgow as the geographical home of chicken tikka masala would seem to cement Ali Ahmed Aslam’s status as the originator. But the lengthy legal process was scrapped after the EU advised it focused more on protection certifications for food products directly tied to certain regions’ agriculture.

So Glasgow never got its citywide copyright for birthing chicken tikka masala. Yet restaurants across the area have leaned into the dish’s legend and local ties by claiming their own signatures on Aslam’s foundational recipe. Glasgow continues to work to promote and safeguard food traditions, even if chicken tikka masala never gets formal status.

And the dish’s belonging more broadly to all of Britain and British culture keeps Aslam’s backstory alive – his tale reaching lore-like status as the brilliant inventor behind a cuisine fusion staple. No protection needed there.

Lasting Legacy – Celebrating an Unexpected Icon

Ali Ahmed Aslam continued helming his curry house Shish Mahal for decades as it rode high on its early fame as the home of chicken tikka masala. His face became the logo beaming from takeout menus and he routinely greeted patrons in Glasgow with a culinary contribution that spoke to the city’s cosmopolitan evolution.

Sadly though, Aslam passed away in January 2022 at the age of 83 after battling pneumonia. News spread internationally of the loss of the man who unwittingly created a globally cherished dish. His sudden death sparked reflection on the lasting impacts of his cooking.

British media organizations rushed to profile obituaries of Chicken Tikka Masala’s famed innovator. Politicians like Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon publicly praised Ali Ahmed Aslam’s influence, tweeting: “Our [national dish] may have had origins in Glasgow, but was filtered through the creative Asian palette & had Ali’s very special touch.”

Indeed in Glasgow, celebrations of Aslam’s life echoed what he gave to Scotland – a dish borne of a uniquely diverse community finding its flavor. His restaurant Shish Mahal endures as a mecca for locals and worldwide food tourists alike seeking chicken tikka masala in its mythic birthplace.

On the restaurant wall, framed articles still celebrate Ali’s smiling face and culinary charm side-by-side with royal families who’ve stopped in to sample his fare. Nearby also hangs effusive praise in a speech by Member of Scottish Parliament Mohammad Sarwar proclaiming to media that “Without Glasgow, chicken tikka masala would not exist. Without Ali Ahmed Aslam it would not exist.”

It’s a powerful legacy – how an off-menu dish whipped up to appease one fussy patron went on to put Glasgow on the culinary map. And chicken tikka masala itself roared to popularity as a symbol of Britain’s vibrant multiculturalism, fusion food in its finest (and tastiest) form.

Around kitchen tables and restaurant booths today, diners continue to order and enjoy Ali Ahmed Aslam’s gift to the world. Though no longer with us, his story lives on in every creamy bite of soul-warming chicken tikka masala sauce draped over tender morsels of protein and spice. The flavored legacy marches on.

Ali Ahmed Aslam and the Story of Chicken Tikka Masala

Ali Ahmed Aslam’s backstory brings culinary delight – how an immigrant’s ingenious restaurant improvisation birthed an iconic dish

Ali Ahmed Aslam and the Story of Chicken Tikka Masala
Ali Ahmed Aslam and the Story of Chicken Tikka Masala

Glasgow Roots – Shish Mahal’s Curry Legacy

For Glaswegians, Shish Mahal restaurant enjoys pride of place as a culinary institution that brought creative South Asian fare to the city over 50 years ago. Its warm, welcoming dining room has hosted celebrities and even royalty. But the restaurant’s lasting legacy comes down to one particular dish – chicken tikka masala. This tomatoey, creamy curry favorite traces its improvised invention to Shish Mahal founder Ali Ahmed Aslam.

Pivotal to most chicken tikka masala origin stories is how the dish came about almost accidentally in the 1970s to appease a customer. One night at Shish Mahal, a diner reportedly complained their chicken tikka – cooked yogurt-marinated chicken from the tandoor oven – was dry and lacked flavor. Ever the culinary innovator, Glasgow curry pioneer Aslam adapted by bringing together a sauce blending spices, tomato soup, cream and yogurt. And just like that, chicken tikka masala was born!

Humble Beginnings

The backstory of accidental genius belies Ali Ahmed Aslam’s own humble start on the long road to becoming Chicken Tikka Masala’s legendary creator. Details of his early years in Pakistan are scarce, but it’s been widely reported that a young Aslam moved from Pakistan to Glasgow around 1950 at the age of 12.

Like many South Asian immigrants, he originally worked restaurants around the city before opening Shish Mahal in 1964. At the time, Indian and Pakistani restaurants were still a relative novelty despite the growing expat communities. Aslam leaned into his heritage to give locals a taste of authentic spice and flavor. Dishes like balti and special oven-cooked breads called naan started gaining popularity on his menu.

Little did he know, his greatest culinary contribution was still to come in the form of an improvised sauce he whipped up in a dash to satisfy an unhappy customer one evening…

Lasting Impressions – How Chicken Tikka Masala Took Flight

While many eateries make claims to secret recipes, Shish Mahal can rightly boast birthing an entirely original dish in chicken tikka masala. Almost immediately after its first appearance, the tomatoey sauce blanketing chicken tikka met rave reviews. Word quickly spread, and soon Shish Mahal was drawing diners from all over Glasgow and beyond, hungry for this tasty new dish.

Looking back, Aslam reminisced to reporters “It was just a spicy sauce to be eaten with chicken. But people started loving it. They came from everywhere to eat this dish.” Within a decade, chicken tikka masala was a staple on Indian restaurant menus across Britain – winning fans with its mellow spices, sweet tomato flavor and rich creamy texture.

Somewhere along the way, stories emerged dubbing chicken tikka masala Britain’s “True National Dish.” Perhaps because its hybrid flavors so perfectly captured the nation’s multicultural identity better than outdated English staples like fish and chips or bangers and mash. Its wild popularity affirmed chicken tikka masala’s pole position.

For Glasgow native Aslam, he continued focusing on hospitality and sharing his passion for South Asian cooking over flash or fame. But his restaurant Shish Mahal cemented its place as destination dining. And Aslam himself became the smiling face of Glasgow’s lively curry scene – welcoming Bollywood stars and even royalty through its doors over the years to sample his namesake dish.

Lasting Culinary Milestone

Since its improvised origins, chicken tikka masala has transcended Shish Mahal to become a globally enjoyed Indian restaurant staple. From North America to Asia and Australia, you’ll find some variation of Ali Ahmed Aslam’s initial recipe – tender chicken tikka baked in the tandoor oven to perfection, then bathed in a spiced creamy tomato gravy.

With such worldwide reach, it seemed destined that Aslam’s dish should receive historic distinction. Campaigns emerged to grant “Protected Designation of Origin” status to cement Glasgow as the official home of Chicken Tikka Masala. The lengthy legal process was scrapped before completion, so the dish itself carries no formal geographic indication.

But with chicken tikka masala’s origin story so indelibly tied to Aslam and his Glasgow kitchen, the dish’s belonging to Scotland’s culinary heritage is without question. As Scottish politician Mohammad Sarwar once proclaimed in a speech, “Without Glasgow, there would be no Chicken Tikka Masala. Without [Aslam] it would not exist.” The curry innovator left an indelible mark through his cooking alone.

Lasting Tributes for an Inventor

Sadly, Ali Ahmed Aslam passed away in early 2022 at the age of 83 after struggling with poor health. His death launched a flood of tributes to the restaurateur who brought such delight through his unexpectedly magical recipe creation decades ago.

British media detailed obituaries honoring Chicken Tikka Masala’s famed inventor. Scottish leaders like First Minister Nicola Sturgeon praised his legacy and influence. Aslam’s restaurant endures as homage, with his photo still displayed on Shish Mahal’s walls alongside royal commendations.

With such pride and appreciation for Aslam’s contributions, there’s perhaps no better legacy than chicken tikka masala itself – still tallying up restaurant orders and feeding families across continents every night. It seems fussy customers and inspiring creators continue making culinary magic together through the iconic dish.