Finding Chicken Tikka Masala (CTM) that’s “just right” is a challenge.* In my unabashed opinion, there’s either amazing CTM, or cry-me-a-river disappointing CTM, which is better classified as ‘not CTM’. I’ve had ‘not CTM’ at a lot of places, and CTM at a few.
I remember coming home from one of these few places and having a surprising exchange with my mom.
Mom: “How was dinner with your friends? What did you girls eat?”
Me: “It was great! We had chicken tikka masala with fresh naan.”
Mom: “Chicken tikka masala? What’s that?”
And that’s the first and only Indian dish I’ve known about before my mother, an expert in Punjabi cooking. I recently traveled to London this past December, and my #1 Bucket List priority was to eat Chicken Tikka Masala. When I told my cousin, his response was (and I urge you to read this with a British accent): “Chicken teeka masala?” He knew what it was, but just didn’t get why.**
I am persistent when it comes to matters of
the heart food, and I wasn’t going to let my cousins perplexity get in the way. I was standing in the land of Shakespeare, and it was my turn to be inspired. I insisted that we set out to accomplish my Bucket List, which, let’s be honest, I didn’t have any other items on. A lot was riding on CTM.
Our first stop was Brick Lane. My cousin had not been to Brick Lane for over 10 years, so he had a hard time remembering which restaurant he should take us to, especially since he didn’t think we should be going there to eat in the first place. We mosied along the restaurant-lined sidewalk, coaxed by one host after the other to come inside, me giddy with the anticipation of fulfilling a dream food experience of epic proportions. In America, I ate Chicken Tikka Masala while studying British colonialism, but here, I could do so from the epicenter, my belly in the (colon-izing) beast.
At some point, we gave in to a persistant host standing alfresco at The Aladin and entered.
We walked through tightly-arranged tables around which white people briefly looked up to stare at us before returning to their naan & conversation (naan-versation), and were led downstairs, where there were even more white people enjoying “curry”. Like the time a white guy in dreadlocks gave me side eye as he walked out of Namaste Bookshop near Union Square, I felt completely out of place in what is supposed to be my cultural setting. We were the only brown people in the restaurant. The Bangladeshi waiters looked to us as they would long lost relatives with the enthusiasm reserved for uniting at an airport terminal.
As we were seated, I looked around: unsmiling white British people illuminated by disco lights against a backdrop of Christmas tinsel and stock photographs of island sunsets. Well, the decor seemed about right.
The CTM arrived. A naan bite boat was prepared, launched into the gravy, and returned to safe harbor in my mouth.
Alas! I sank into disappointment. It was all wrong. The “not CTM” was too sweet and coconuty, with not enough cumin, coriandor, or tangy tomato. Our first stop turned out to be our grandest mistake. The waiters should have pulled us close and whispered a warning, “Swim away! Swim away!”
And so I say, with great pain:
Do not follow the yellow Brick Lane.
The yellow is not turmeric stain,
but the afterglow of gentrified terrain.
Swallowing our disappointment, I drifted through the next few days doing non-CTM stuff, like take selfies in basmati rice-filled Tesco, visit the beautiful and striking Greenwich University Campus, and you know, other London stuff, before finally circling back to my #1 priority. This time, we had to get it right. We set out for an historic landmark guaranteed to please: Punjab Restaurant, Established in 1946.
We parked far away and walked to work up the kind of hunger this food deserved. We shoved our way through the original Times Square – Piccadilly Circus – shuffled through Chinatown, and sauntered for about a half more mile before we reached Leicester Square. It turns out it wasn’t that far: we were just really hungry, and every step felt like a new desert mirage unfolding between me and a sea of CTM.
We arrived. The cobalt blue window panes were inviting. I dashed to the door and pulled the handle, but it didn’t open. I peered inside. The tables were empty and white, with no CTM spills anywhere in sight. We had made a drastic miscalculation: they were closed on Christmas Eve, and… it was Christmas Eve.
I stared into Punjab Restaurant, forlorn. Are my dreams over? They can’t be – my parents taught me to never give up, and that rules aren’t really rules if brown people are involved. Focus, Nida, focus. I glanced through the front entrace, hoping to lure someone from the depths of the kitchen with my puppy dog expression. An inner door opened and two workers reached to lift a crate. I knocked on the window pane and kept staring with the convinction of a 5-year-old as I prepared my speech. I came all the way here from America just to have your Chicken Tikka Masala. Will you really send me away disappointed? I’m leaving tomorrow! (It was a bluff: I wasn’t leaving tomorrow, but I had to amp up the stakes.) They ignored me.
A few minutes later, I caught the same two workers chatting outside the restaurant and I approached them with my plea. They mumbled their sorries and hastened away, probably rejoining at a safer distance away from the weird American girl. I was unable to persuade them to re-open the restaurant on Christmas Eve to make me a special batch of Chicken Tikka Masala (but you can’t say I didn’t try).
I skulked over to Just Falafel and parked myself in a window seat with a view of Punjab Restaurant. As I gnawed on a disappointingly dry falafel sandwich (that Just Falafel location is now permanently closed), my resolve for my #1 priority disintegrated into the “Spicy Indian Dressing” (which would make a better pick-up line than a sauce). This was the second most significant CTM bummer of my trip to London.
At this point, someone who would settle for “not CTM” would give up – but I’m not that person. I knew I had to enlist the help of expert foodies. I pulled out my phone and texted a friend and trusted source of food recommendations. Within minutes, she answered back, highly recommending Tayyabs in East London, but warning that it wasn’t really Chicken Tikka Masala as she quoted her friend, “No respectable restaurant does chicken tikka masala as it is a modern invention.” (Well, excuse me fancy British Indian people.)
Even if it wasn’t CTM, it didn’t sound like it was “not CTM”, so it was worth a try.
Is it you I’m looking for?
I can see it in your eyes.
I can see it in your smile.
– An unoriginal song
On our last night in East London, we embarked down Whitechapel Road to Tayyabs, tucked behind the East London Mosque, which we had passed by at least half a dozen times on our trip – we had been so close, yet so far. I approached the blue neon sign reading “Tayyabs” with measured stoicism. As we entered, I noted the restaurant was filled to the brim with all kinds of Asians: South Asian, East Asian, Caucasian. We were off to a good start.
We were seated in a roaring room with a noir lounge vibe, a far cry from fake plastic flowers. (Actually, I don’t remember seeing fake plastic flowers anywhere. All the plants might have been real.) The servers arrived promptly, and before the waiter could ask if we were ready to order, I blurted, “Chicken Tikka Masala!” Followed by an awkward pause, and, “Oh, and daal gosht, bhindi, lamb chops, and naan.”
Our meal arrived. I prepared the naan bite boat and took a dive of hope. I rose to the surface victorious: the “not really CTM” was not “not CTM”. I closed my eyes and relished the neural messages between my mouth and brain. As warned, it wasn’t really Chicken Tikka Masala, but it was incredibly delicious and missed no flavor or ingredient but heavy cream. As I ate this modern invention in a London Pakistani establishment operated by Bangladeshis, I felt closer to Pakistan. It had been a while since I had a meal so transporting.
I didn’t find CTM in London, but I didn’t only find “not CTM” either. Perhaps CTM is as elusive to Britain as it is to America. Perhaps CTM is waiting for me at Punjab Restaurant, established in 1946. We’ll see.
“Just right” CTM is tangy and sweet, with a perfect blend of spices simmered in heavy cream.
*My families answers are indicative of the intriguing place CTM holds in Indian culture. CTM to Indian cuisine is like Kung Pao Chicken to Chinese cuisine – non-traditional, and a product of merging cultures. Expecting my mom to undoubtedly know about CTM is like assuming that as a Pakistani, I eat restaurant foods like biryani, nihari, and haleem regularly for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I mean, I wish I did, but I would presumably die soon after from a cholesterol-induced heart attack. (Would it be worth it? Yes, it would. And that answer, fellow human beings, is why cardiovascular disease is the #1 cause of death worldwide.)