scorecardHow Glasgow’s Mr Ali ‘created’ chicken tikka masala and left behind a culinary legacy in Britain
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How Glasgow’s Mr Ali ‘created’ chicken tikka masala and left behind a culinary legacy in Britain

How Glasgow’s Mr Ali ‘created’ chicken tikka masala and left behind a culinary legacy in Britain
LifeThelife4 min read
  • Chef and restaurateur Ali Ahmed Aslam was regarded as the inventor of Chicken Tikka Masala - a dish that many consider Britain’s national dish.
  • Aslam, who ran the restaurant Shish Mahal in Glasgow, died aged 77. He was originally from Pakistan.
  • Aslam, and his restaurant Shish Mahal, played an essential part in popularising South Asian cuisine in Britain and helping Glasgow become UK’s curry capital.
Last week, Glasgow-based restaurant Shish Mahal shared on its Facebook page that its owner, Ali Ahmed Aslam, had passed away. 77-year-old Aslam was widely regarded as the father of Chicken Tikka Masala - an Asian dish that has captured the hearts of Britishers for decades now.

The Facebook post was accompanied by a lively photo of Aslam, grinning, with hands in the air, wearing a t-shirt stating “Eat Sleep Shish Repeat”.

As hundreds of heartfelt messages of condolences poured in from one-time customers and regulars alike, it was hard to ignore the warmth that exuded even from his photo. The same warmth that Aslam, fondly remembered as “Mr Ali”, poured into his dishes - including his most famous creation, Chicken Tikka Masala.

Aslam, and his restaurant Shish Mahal, played an integral role in popularising South Asian cuisine and curries in Britain, especially in Britain’s ‘curry capital’, Glasgow, with Shish Mahal becoming an irreplaceable part of the city’s gastronomical history.

As journalist Norry Wilson wrote in Glasgow Times, “I’ve eaten curries in every corner of the world, from America to Australia, from Birmingham’s Balti Triangle to the expensive curry clubs of London, but nothing has ever come close to that magic mouthful of my first ever Glasgow curry.”

Setting up Shish Mahal

Aslam was a young boy when his family moved from Pakistan to Glasgow. His father, Noor Mohammed, is reported to have set up the city's first proper Indian restaurant, the 'Green Gates’, in 1959 - and it was all hands on deck. In fact, his mother, Sahra, used to cook chapatis at the restaurant.

In 1964, Aslam set up the first Shish Mahal down from Green Gates on Gibson Street, expanding on his father’s business proposition - serving a new cuisine at affordable prices. Shortly afterward, Aslam’s younger brother Nasim Ahmed joined the business. Slowly gaining popularity, the restaurant soon became a Glasgow fixture. And, if reports are to be believed, at one point the Shish Mahal was even engaged in a stand-off with another Indian restaurant that stood right opposite to it, Koh-I-Noor.

It’s not clear who won that competition, but what is clear is that under Aslam’s leadership, Shish Mahal had firmly established itself in the hearts of Glaswegians.

Chicken Tikka Masala - the curry dish that catered to British taste buds

The origin story of Chicken Tikka Masala first came to light when Aslam gave an interview to the news agency, AFP. And it’s a story as enticing as the dish itself!

He shared how, in the 1970s, a customer complained about the chicken tikka being “too dry” and asked for some sauce with it. Consequently, he whipped up a curry using yoghurt, cream, and spices. As Aslam shared with AFP, “It’s a dish prepared according to our customer’s taste. Usually, they don’t take hot curry – that’s why we cook it with yoghurt and cream.”

Today, the restaurant has many noteworthy dishes on its menu and includes ‘Lamb Bhoona’ as one of its best sellers. But Chicken Tikka Masala’s origin story has now developed a life of its own, and the Shish will forever be remembered for it - especially since the dish has consistently ranked among Britain’s favourite dishes.

In fact, in 2001, the then British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook called chicken tikka masala “a true British national dish.” According to the restaurant, a campaign to grant Glasgow legal recognition as the home of chicken tikka masala has also been launched with the backing of the city council and Mohammed Sarwar, the Labour MP.

Building an army of ‘shish snobs’

Located at Park Road, Glasgow, Shish Mahal is now run by Rashaid Ali–the third generation of Aslam’s family. It has multiple new dishes on the menu, and first-time customers are often unaware of the restaurant’s rich legacy.

But that’s not the case with the veterans aka ‘shish snobs’- customers who’ve been visiting the restaurant for decades. They are also responsible for ensuring that new additions to the menu don’t change the “style of dish they were served back in the 70′s.” And they’ve succeeded, so much so, that according to Shish Mahal, “exactly the same items are still there on the menu, served in pretty much the same way they have always been.”

In fact, as per the restaurant’s own admission, about 60% of their customers are “regulars”, with the same menu choices. For many, “there is simply no alternative to the restaurant they’ve enjoyed year after year for decades – some, we’re told, even scorn at the suggestion of going anywhere else.”

For all these regulars, the employees and the family that runs Shish Mahal - Aslam or Mr Ali remained the restaurant’s ‘godfather’ right till the end.

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