Google a recipe for chicken and some of the first dishes you’ll find are Indian. That’s because the lowly chicken and Indian cuisine make the perfect marriage – chicken is a mild, versatile meat that readily absorbs the spicy, complex flavours of Asian cooking.
For over 5,000 years, Indian cuisine has been heavily influenced by invasion and trade, and by religious, spiritual and cultural beliefs. It encompasses a huge array of spices, vegetables, fish, meat and poultry. While it’s also one of the best global cuisines for vegetarian fare, contrary to popular belief India is not a predominantly vegetarian country. Buddhism and some strains of Hinduism such as Jainism promote a meat-free diet, yet less than a third of Indians are thought to be solely vegetarian.
Cows are sacred so beef is off the menu. In a hot country, fresh fish is best eaten on the coast. So it’s no revelation that chicken – a reasonably affordable, easy-to-breed animal – is common fodder. The nation’s love of poultry is reflected in its plethora of chicken recipes. They include the omnipresent Chicken Curry in all its glorious forms; Tandoori Chicken, India’s legendary recipe for chicken which is actually less than 100 years old; Mughlai Chicken, a dish associated with the Mughal Empire and the spices of northern India; Chettinad Chicken, an aromatic, highly spiced dish that hails from the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
A prime example of how much Indian food – and chicken recipes especially – is an integral part of the English culinary psyche is that until recently Chicken Tikka Masala was Britain’s most popular dish (it has since been usurped by the Chinese stir-fry). The origin of this Anglo-Indian meal is disputed: it’s been touted as an improvised dish from the Punjab; the evolution of a recipe called Shahi Chicken Masala from Mrs Balbir Singh’s 1961 tome ‘Indian Cookery’; or the brainchild of the chef and proprietor of a Glaswegian restaurant. Its popularity is far-reaching – it’s now available on menus in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Chicken Tikka Masala is basically Tandoor-baked chicken that’s been marinated in yogurt and spices then served in a sauce consisting of coconut cream and tomato. However, there are now so many variants that the only common ingredient is chicken.