Ali Ahmed Aslam Credited With Inventing Chicken Tikka Masala Dies At 77

Ali Ahmed Aslam, Credited With Inventing Chicken Tikka Masala, Dies at 77

Ali Ahmed Aslam Credited With Inventing Chicken Tikka Masala Dies At 77

A Glasgow restaurateur, he was part of the rise of the British curry house — and played an essential part in its story.

Ali Ahmed Aslam, the Glasgow restaurateur who was often credited with the invention of chicken tikka masala, died on Monday. He was 77.

His son Asif Ali said the cause was septic shock and organ failure after a prolonged illness. He did not say where Mr. Aslam died.

Much like Cartesian geometry, chicken tikka masala was most likely not one person’s invention, but rather a case of simultaneous discovery — a delicious inevitability in so many restaurant kitchens, advanced by shifting forces of immigration and tastes in postwar Britain.

Many cooks claimed that they were the ones who served it first, or that they knew a guy who knew the guy who really did. Others insisted it wasn’t a British invention at all but a Punjabi dish. None of those stories seemed to stick.

Instead, the bright tomato-tinted lights of fame shone on one man: Mr. Aslam, who immigrated to Glasgow from a village outside Lahore, Pakistan, when he was 16, and who opened the restaurant Shish Mahal in 1964.

What seems to have established Mr. Aslam as the inventor of the dish was an unsuccessful 2009 bid by the Scottish member of Parliament Mohammad Sarwar to have the European Union recognize chicken tikka masala as a Glaswegian specialty. In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Mr. Aslam explained that he had added some sauce to please a customer once, and you could almost hear him shrug.

In Aslam family lore, it was a local bus driver who popped in for dinner and suggested that plain chicken tikka was too spicy for him, and too dry — and also he wasn’t feeling well, so wasn’t there something sweeter and saucier that he could have instead? Sure, why not. Mr. Aslam, who was known as Mr. Ali, tipped the tandoor-grilled pieces of meat into a pan with a quick tomato sauce and returned them to the table.

“He never really put so much importance on it,” Asif Ali said. “He just told people how he made it.”

Chicken tikka masala became so widespread that in 2001 Robin Cook, the British foreign secretary, delivered a speech praising the dish — and Britain for embracing it.

“Chicken tikka masala is now a true British national dish,” Mr. Cook said, referring to a survey that had placed it above fish and chips in popularity. “Not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.”

Mr. Aslam was born into a family of farmers, in a small village near Lahore. As a teenager, newly arrived to Glasgow in 1959, he took a job with his uncle in the clothing business during the day and cut onions at a local restaurant at night.

Mr. Aslam was ambitious, and he soon opened his own place in the city’s West End. He installed just a few tables and a brilliantly hot well of a tandoor oven, which he learned to man in a sweaty process of trial and error. He brought his parents over from Pakistan; his mother helped to run the kitchen, and his father took care of the front of the house.

In 1969, Mr. Aslam married Kalsoom Akhtar, who came from the same village in Pakistan. In Glasgow they raised five children. In addition to his son Asif, his survivors include his wife; their other children, Shaista Ali-Sattar, Rashaid Ali, Omar Ali and Samiya Ali; his brother Nasim Ahmed; and his sisters Bashiran Bibi and Naziran Tariq Ali.)

Chicken tikka masala boomed in the curry houses of 1970s Britain. Soon it was more than just a dish you could order off the menu at every curry house, or buy packaged at the supermarket; it was a powerful political symbol.

Mr. Aslam in an undated photo. When he reopened Shish Mahal after some renovations in 1979, he caused a stir by offering dishes at their original 1964 prices.via Ali family

In reality, Mr. Cook’s vision of multicultural Britain often grated against reports of daily life in Britain — and in curry houses, where after local pubs closed it was common for racist, drunken diners to file in, demanding the South Asian foods they’d grown to love while also abusing the workers who came from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

As the curry house established itself as a British institution, more flourished around Shish Mahal. In 1979, when Mr. Aslam renovated the place, he reopened with a clever gimmick: all of the original 1964 prices, for a limited time. This led to long, frenzied lines down the block. In photos taken around this time, Mr. Aslam is handsome and beaming, in a tuxedo jacket and bow tie, with the thick, floppy hair of a movie star.

There were just a few hundred curry houses in Britain when Mr. Aslam opened Shish Mahal; by the time Mr. Cook delivered his speech, there were thousands. Mr. Aslam, though not named in the speech, had become an essential part of Britain’s story of itself.

Though two of his sons took over ownership of Shish Mahal in 1994, Mr. Aslam never officially retired, and he continued to drive his white Jaguar to work and to wear the exquisite suits he had tailored on Savile Row. Known for his relentless work ethic, he considered himself a proud Glaswegian, a Scotsman through and through.

The dish, which grew far bigger than the man, was just as likely to be a symbol of British comfort food as one of inauthenticity. Though more recent surveys have named other curries, such as chicken jalfrezi, as the most popular in Britain, chicken tikka masala is pervasive. It is found on airplanes and as a pizza topping, at fast-food chains and premade in jars on grocery shelves all over the world.

Shish Mahal closed for 48 hours in honor of Mr. Aslam and posted news of his death on its Facebook page. A multigenerational fan base of Glaswegians joined in remembering the restaurant.

“Enjoyed my first ever proper curry at the Shish Mahal on Gibson Street,” wrote one fan, Wendy Russell. “A cheeky chicken Madras.”

From the responses across social media, it was clear that the restaurant had also become part of the fabric of the city. Over the years, Mr. Aslam welcomed generations of tipsy teenagers, who had waited in the cold after the pubs closed, as well as new parents who handed pieces of warm naan over to their babies to gum. Families had become regulars. What many seemed to remember wasn’t the famous dish, but rather the man who had made them feel at home.

Isabella Kwai contributed reporting from London.

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