Digging for hidden treasure: searching for the origins of Balti and Tikka Masala

Did you ever daydream about starring in a movie as an archeologist who ferrets out exotic treasures, the origins of which have been lost in the mists of antiquity? Well, get over it. Hollywood still has no idea how to cast brown people as anything other than terrorists, doctors, and occasionally taxi drivers or eaters of monkey brains. They’re not yet ready to make an Indian ANNA Jones movie, “M.Night” notwithstanding.

Instead, I offer you a far geekier and more glorious pursuit! The BBC and OED have teamed up to find the earliest verifiable usage of words from the unimaginatively titled “BBC Wordhunt appeal list” for the next version of the OED. If you can beat their earliest recorded usage (you need some form of dated evidence) your contribution might be featured as part of a new BBC2 TV series. How’s that for 15 minutes of fame?

Two of the fifty words on their list (4%!) are words of BritAsian origin:

Wanted: printed evidence before 1984; information on the word’s origin

Are you one of Britain’s original curry kings or queens? If so, did you cook or serve Britain or the world’s first balti — or do you know who did? Knocking around at the back of the kitchen drawer do you have an old takeaway menu with a balti on it from before 1984?

The winter issue of Curry Magazine (1984) contains the first printed evidence the OED has for ‘balti’. But where the term comes from (India, Pakistan — perhaps Baltistan) remains something of a mystery at present. They say it first appeared in the Birmingham area in the early 80s. But is there any printed evidence for the term earlier, and can the origin be confirmed?

See the OED entry for balti

tikka masala
Wanted: printed evidence before 1975

Restaurant menus and reviews start to show chicken tikka masala from 1975, according to the latest research from the OED. Despite the dish’s claim to be a great British national dish, the first recorded evidence comes from America. Something wrong here? Or not?

While they don’t provide a link to the entry for Tikka Masala in the OED, here’s what the OED entry says:

A dish of meat (usually chicken) cooked in a sauce of mixed spices, influenced by Indian cuisine but originating either in the United Kingdom or United States; (also) the sauce itself. Freq. as postmodifier, esp in chicken tikka masala.

1975 N.Y. Times 9 May 25/3 We tried chicken tikka masala ($4.50), diced chicken in cream sauce that seemed to us nearly as French as Indian. 1993 Washingtonian June 70/1 There are not only tandoori chicken and chicken tikka, but a very good tikka masala (cubes of boneless chicken in a mildly spicy sauce). 1998 Grocer 30 May 43/1 Supplied principally to the catering sector, three varieties{em} korma, tikka masala and madras in 310g and 475g pots{em}are available, with further flavours coming soon. 2002 A. HOLMES Sleb viii. 63 If he asks, I had chicken tikka masala and a peshwari naan.

You can also make a pitch for the inclusion of new words. Anybody have some interesting Hinglish words they want to pitch?

No dictionary is ever finished, and so the appeal is also for new words that aren’t yet in the OED, but should be. What do you think is the biggest word on your street at the moment?  [BBC]

Honestly, I don’t care much for either the dishes mentioned or their etymology. It’s the thrill of the hunt (and the fame and glory that come with success) that appeal to me …

Thanks to SepiaMutiny reader dot for the pointer. She also reminds me that Dick & Garlick have discussed this topic as well.

One thought on “Digging for hidden treasure: searching for the origins of Balti and Tikka Masala

  1. you know what one of my most enduring memories of Indiana Jones was? in the movie, i think he was teaching a class and some female student was way into him, so she wrote “i love you” on her eyelids and then blinked really slowly while sitting in the front row of his lecture.

    i always wanted to ask my friends who were professors if anyone had ever done that to them, though i can’t imagine they would. random, thy name is Eofia. i know.

    oh, and i had no idea that murgh tikka masala was an AMERICAN dish first…the things you learn from the mutiny.