Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Chicken Tikka Masala = British Immigrant Identity

September 7, 2009 · 1 Comment

After every major wave of immigrants that come to a country like Britain, the debate over national identity will inevitably come up. If these people are here to stay, will they affect our society in a way that changes our everyday lives? What does it mean to be British? Will these people ever become one of us, or will they always just be outsiders? For a country with such a long standing national identity, it would only make sense that the British would be unyielding to the newest members of their nation. However given England’s history, it seems that incorporating these new cultures would be the more British thing to do.

Take food for example: If you had asked the public only fifteen years ago what the national dish of England was, chances were they would say “fish and chips”. Ask that question today and you would be shocked to hear that “chicken tikka masala” is the dish of choice for the majority of British people. The origin of the recipe is the perfect example of immigrant identity in England. The (unconfirmed but generally accepted) story goes like this: A customer in a Glasgow restaurant complained that the chicken tikka, a dish Punjabi in origin was too dry and asked for some gravy. Allegedly, the chef then composed a sauce out of yogurt and spices and POOF, chicken tikka masala. Today, you would be hard pressed to find an Indian restaurant that did not at least offer the dish, and there are even some non-Indian restaurants who serve it. How was it that a dish so un-British in nature could have such a serious effect on British cuisine? Some could say it is the increasing amount of people who are either from or descended from India. While this answer is certainly plausible, that doesn’t account for the overwhelming white British population who still chose this dish over “fish and chips” (Another very plausible answer could be that fish and chips simply isn’t appetizing, but that is an entirely different debate).

What happens instead is something much more unexpected: British Identity changes. Chicken tikka masala is only one of many instances throughout British history in which England has absorbed a part of its immigrant culture and called it its own. It was Jewish immigrants from that modernized England’s banking system. Many members of the royal family throughout history have been from other countries. Even fish and chips, the pride and joy of English cuisine (which is sad beyond words), is actually French in origin. The character of Aktar in Tarquin Hall’s Salaam Brick Lane describes it best as being “Englished” and points out that despite the mindset of the English to be predisposed against foreigners joining the fold, the assimilation will inevitably happen. However, who changes who will be and always has been largely up to debate.

Categories: Paul
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1 response so far ↓

  •   abarron76 // Sep 8th 2009 at 05:24

    Subway, as in $5 footlong Subway, offers a chicken tikka sub. They also offer cappuccino and espresso. It just goes to show how even the most cookie-cutter establishments have to adapt their menus to accommodate local cuisine. But as you said, however many years before curry became nationally ingrained, there was some other favorite, ubiquitous dish that wasn’t actually English. Globalization, my friend.

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