Food: Currying flavour

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Curry

Was Glasgow the birthplace of the chicken tikka masala? David Pollock finds out.

When the late foreign secretary Robin Cook called the chicken tikka masala ‘Britain’s true national dish’, it was the moment the curry arrived. Until then seen as an ethnic food which had been brought over by Indian immigrants during the 1960s, its place as a true blend of the culinary traditions of the UK and the East is now widely-known and celebrated.

Debate about the origins of the tikka masala hasn’t come up with an answer, but, as is the way with such stories, probably the best and most widely-known comes from Glasgow.

Sometime in the early 70s, so legend has it, a man visiting his local Glaswegian curry house complained that his meal was too dry. The chef, at a loss for any better ideas, improvised by dumping a can of tomato soup and a few extra spices in, and so a national favourite was born.

Who knows if that’s true, but it’s certainly a story that Angela Bennett isn’t shy about repeating. Angela works for the Glasgow-based Oceanic Group, who this year set up the very first annual Irn-Bru Scottish Curry Awards, and she believes she knows why the curry has been such a success story in the UK over the last half-century. ‘It’s truly a dish for everyone,’ she says, ‘and the fact it’s so popular is an important symbol of our multicultural society.

‘The spices in a curry stimulate the taste buds, which is a far cry from homely, traditional British cooking - it can seem somewhat bland in comparison.’

Nasreen Aksi of the West End’s Harlequin chain is the Curry Awards’ reigning Scottish Curry Queen, and she emphasises just how popular the curry is in Glasgow. ‘There are just so many restaurants here,’ she says. ‘Sometimes there are a few on the same street, or there’ll be a couple across the road from each other and we’re all busy.’

With 100 curry houses in Glasgow alone, Nasreen recognises that only by giving the customers a bit of variety will the scene remain vibrant. She also pinpoints another development: ‘In the past year, we’ve noticed that the chicken chasni is outselling the tikka masala in Glasgow. It’s like a sweet and sour korma, it’s really nice.’

In which case, we’re sold.

The 2009 Scottish Curry Awards are taking place at the Thistle Hotel, Glasgow, 23 Apr.

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