Glasgow, the British Capital of Curry

A technician walked into a Curryhouse (an Indian as its called) in Glasgow, ordered a large bowl of curry and rice to feed his famished stomach. The curry came to his table and he returned it, complaining that the Masala chicken curry he was served was too dry and inedible, he wanted something else.

The bowl of curry returned to the kitchen with the comments from the guest.

What could he do to make the dish ‘wetter’?

The chef pondered for a bit and went to the storeroom, took out a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup (he happened to be suffering from some ailments and needed to drink soup). He opened the can, threw it into the plate of masala chicken and then mixed it with a dollop of heavy cream. Out came a creamy, slightly sour and savoury chicken dish with rice and papadams.

The technician loved it.

And that, is the story behind the birth of the Chicken Tikka Masala that is claimed by the folks at the Shish Mahal in Glasgow. In fact Chicken Tikka Masala is so popular in the UK, in 2001 the country’s then foreign secretary Robin Cook claimed it was a national dish (not fish and chips or haggis).

Now that story is heavily debated, there are those who doubt its authenticity, some who critic the Shish Mahal’s quality (alot of style behind its curryhouse but not substance in its curry), and then a lot of South Asians who say that Chicken Tikka Masala is a thoroughly South Asian dish ‘stolen’ by the British.

Curryhouses opened in Britain as more and more people from the subcontinent moved to the UK in the 1960s, 70s. Many of these people were not chefs but normal kids who moved to the UK for a better life. The British love of curry was viewed by these erstwhile inexperienced people as a potential job, leading to the first curryhouses in the UK. This explains why curries in the UK do not have the same professional heritage or taste in the subcontinent, but tasted a lot more home-cooked. Things have changed vastly today, and many chefs come from India, but the taste and nature of curryhouses in the UK has become a lot more distinctive.

In fact British curry has evolved to become so distinct that there are plans to bring British curry to India.

I just wanted a good curry and wanted to try a British Curryhouse while in Glasgow. And for good reason, Glasgow is the curry capital of Britain, especially since it’s been voted as such the most number of years. Some say that the Shish is not the best restaurant in Britain for a curry and I wouldn’t be surprised. But I couldn’t resist a good story could I?

Located in the west end of Glasgow, Shish Mahal is a classical Indian restaurant in Europe, with servers dressed too formally and gaudy decorations that look like that have stayed that way since the 1970s. It’s a huge part of the whole experience to be fair. The servers look at me confused when I ordered rice, poppadoms and curry and refused to eat my poppadoms until I had it with rice. Apparently, you should have it before the main dish – really try poppadoms with rice on top and a serving of curry on top of it, that’s what you’d call a culinary money shot.

Tasting the Chicken Tikka Masala convinced me that this dish was British. First the chicken was tandoored and served in the bowl, if I’m not wrong, you don’t tandoor a chicken and serve it in sauce if this was an Indian creation. Second, it was not spicy but creamy and savoury with hints of sweetness instead of sourness. It had the richness that characterises brown sauce and meat pies that can be found all around town, a sort of warming and filling feeling in your tummy.

I had a happy tummy.

But Shish Mahal aside, why is Glasgow the curry capital of the UK?

The fact that it has a litany of curryhouses and that the locals love a good curry. I’m assuming it has something to do with the cold weather too – a warm spicy curry is perfect for a cold downcast Glasgow evening.

What defines a curry capital of Britain in the first place? That it’s curry is the hottest in the country. And hot curry is important to the Britons, becoming a very important part of their cuisine after the Union Jack flew over the Indian subcontinent – and a defining icon of Britishness. Heston Blumenthal’s documentary explains the origins and makes the perfect homage to the dish.

So even though you are in Scotland, when you are in Glasgow, go find yourself a good bowl of curry!


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