Ali Ahmed Aslam, who was 77 years old, has died. He is known for creating Chicken Tikka Masala.
As a restaurant owner in Glasgow, he helped the British curry house grow and played a key role in its history.
Ali Ahmed Aslam, a restaurant owner who was often said to have invented chicken tikka masala, died in Glasgow on Monday. He was 77.
His son, Asif Ali, said that his father died in a hospital because he had been sick for a long time and went into septic shock. His organs also failed.
Like Cartesian geometry, chicken tikka masala probably wasn’t made by just one person. Instead, it was probably made by several people at the same time. It became a staple in many restaurant kitchens in postwar Britain as immigration and taste changed.
Many cooks said they were the first ones to serve it, or they knew someone who knew the person who did. Others said it wasn’t made in Britain at all, but was instead a Punjabi dish. No one seemed to remember any of those stories.
Instead, the bright tomato-colored lights of fame shone on one man: Mr. Aslam. He moved to Scotland when he was a teenager from a village near Lahore, Pakistan, and opened the restaurant Shish Mahal in Glasgow in 1964.
A failed attempt by Mohammad Sarwar, a Scottish member of parliament, to have the European Union recognize chicken tikka masala as a Glaswegian specialty in 2009 seems to have proven that Mr. Aslam was the person who came up with the dish. Mr. Aslam told Agence France-Presse that he once added some sauce to please a customer, and you could almost hear him shrug.
The story in the Aslam family is that a local bus driver stopped by for dinner and said that plain chicken tikka was too spicy and dry for him, and that he wasn’t feeling well, so could he have something sweeter and saucier instead? Why not, sure. Mr. Aslam, who was also known as Mr. Ali, put the pieces of meat that had been cooked in a tandoor into a pan with a quick tomato sauce and brought them back to the table.
Asif Ali said, “He never really gave it that much weight.” “He just told people how he got where he is now.”
Chicken tikka masala became so popular that the British foreign secretary, Robin Cook, gave a speech in 2001 praising the dish and Britain for taking it on.
“Chicken tikka masala is now the national dish of Britain,” said Mr. Cook, referring to a survey that said it was more popular than fish and chips. “Not only is it the most popular, but it’s also a great example of how Britain takes in and changes things from outside.”
On April 1, 1945, Mr. Aslam was born into a farming family in a small village near Lahore. In 1959, he was a teenager who had just moved to Glasgow. During the day, he worked with his uncle in the clothing business, and at night, he cut onions at a nearby restaurant.
Mr. Aslam wanted to do well for himself, so he soon opened his own place in the West End of the city. He put in just a few tables and a tandoor oven with a very hot well. He learned how to use it through sweaty trial and error. He brought his parents from Pakistan. His mother, Saira Bibi, helped run the kitchen, and his father, Noor Mohammed, took care of the dining room.
Mr. Aslam married Kalsoom Akhtar in 1969. She was from the same village in Pakistan as he was. They had five kids in Glasgow. In addition to his son Asif, he is survived by his wife, their other children Shaista Ali-Sattar, Rashaid Ali, Omar Ali, and Samiya Ali, his brother Nasim Ahmed, his sisters Bashiran Bibi and Naziran Tariq Ali, and 13 grandchildren.
In the 1970s, chicken tikka masala was very popular in British curry houses. Soon, it was more than just a dish you could order at a restaurant or buy in a package at the store. It became a strong political symbol.
In reality, Mr. Cook’s vision of a multicultural Britain often clashed with what people said about day-to-day life in Britain. This was especially true in curry houses, where racist, drunk people would often come in after pubs closed and order the South Asian foods they had grown to love while treating the workers from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh badly.
As the curry house established itself as a British institution, more flourished around Shish Mahal. In 1979, Mr. Aslam fixed up the place and reopened it with a clever trick: for a limited time, he kept all of the prices from 1964. This caused long, crowded lines that went around the block. In pictures taken around this time, Mr. Aslam looks like a movie star with his thick, wavy hair, tuxedo jacket, and bow tie.
When Mr. Aslam opened his curry house, there were only a few hundred in Britain. By the time Mr. Cook gave his speech, there were thousands. Even though Mr. Aslam wasn’t named in the speech, he had become an important part of Britain’s history.
Even though two of his sons took over Shish Mahal in 1994, Mr. Aslam never officially retired. He continued to drive his white Jaguar to work and wear the expensive suits he had made on Savile Row. He was known for how hard he worked, and he was proud to be a Glaswegian and a Scotsman through and through.
The dish, which got much bigger than the man, could have been a sign of both British comfort food and fakery. Recent polls have shown that chicken jalfrezi is the most popular curry in Britain, but chicken tikka masala is still very popular. It can be found all over the world on planes, as a pizza topping, at fast-food chains, and already made in grocery stores.
In honor of Mr. Aslam, Shish Mahal was closed for 48 hours, and the news of his death was posted on its Facebook page. People of all ages in Glasgow loved the restaurant and talked about it.
One fan, Wendy Russell, wrote, “I had my first real curry at the Shish Mahal on Gibson Street. It was great!” “A cheeky Madras chicken.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Aslam’s family held a public funeral prayer at the Glasgow Central Mosque. Asif Ali, his son, said that about 500 people, both young and old, came.
The restaurant was now a part of the city itself. Over the years, Mr. Aslam has met many drunk teenagers who waited outside in the cold after the pubs closed, as well as new parents who gave their babies warm naan to chew. Families came back often. People didn’t seem to remember the famous dish as much as the man who made them feel at home.