ALI AHMED ASLAM aged 77
CHICKEN, LOVELY CHICKEN
Born in 1945 to an extremely poor farming family in a village near Lahore in the Punjab, it was at the time part of British India but is now in Pakistan.
In the late 1950s Ali emigrated to Glasgow.
He started working for his uncle in a haberdashery business, Sher Brothers, and saved enough money to bring his parents to Scotland from Pakistan.
He helped his father, Noor Mohammed, look for some premises that they could turn into a café.
Eventually they acquired what became the Green Gates restaurant on Bank Street. It was the first Indian restaurant in the city. It opened in 1959.
His mother did the cooking, his father was front of house and Ali was the “Chief onion chopper.”
Glasgow had a long history of enjoying Indian food. As a port city it had extensive trading links with British-cont
rolled India in the days of empire. Small shacks opened on the Clyde dockside in the 1900s, which sold Indian food – but they disappeared with the Second World War.
And Queen Victoria had employed an Indian chef at her Scottish residence, Balmoral.
Ali worked for his uncle in the daytime and his father in the evening.
He opened his own restaurant in 1964, when he was just 19 years old. It was called the Shish Mahal and was on Gibson Street in Glasgow’s west end.
It was an instant success. Very soon, Gibson Street became the curry centre of the city with 4 other rival eateries opening in the 1960s.
And it was such a popular area that other cuisines opened up there. In the 1970s, the spaghetti house next to Shish Mahal was the place where film director Bill Forsyth ‘discovered’ waitress Clare Grogan.
Ali put their success down to the fact licensing hours in the city meant pubs shut at 10:00pm. The only place you could get a drink after that was an Indian restaurant.
Meanwhile, Ali got married to Kalsoom Akhtar, from the same village as him in the Punjab. and was to have 5 children, three sons, Asif, Rashaid and Omar and two daughters, Shaista and Samiya.
He took his brother Nasim into the business.
His restaurant became his life’s work. He ate his lunch in it every single day.
And it was here, he invented Chicken Tikka Masala.
A regular customer, a local bus driver, came in and asked for a chicken curry. When it arrived he said, “I’d like some sauce with that. It’s too dry.”
Ali concocted a sauce using a tin of Heinz Cream of Tomato soup with yoghurt, cream and some spices – and Tikka Masala was born. He used the yoghurt and cream because he claimed British tastes could not cope with the hot Indian food.
He said it was his gift to the city.
It became immensely popular, earning Ali the title of ‘Glasgow Curry King’, although his customers always called him ‘Mr Ali’.
When he celebrated the 15th anniversary of Shish Mahal in 1979, he had one evening when he charged 1964 prices. There were queues all the way down the street.
In the 1980s, he was forced to close the Shish Mahal due to subsidence. His closest rival, the ‘Koh-I-Noor’ totally collapsed into the River Kelvin.
Ali got some new premises in Park Road and kept the same name. His old building is now Hillhead Primary School. Ali used to joke that he hoped Hillhead had curry on it’s lunchtime menu.
He treated himself to a white Jaguar and proudly drove to work in it every day.
Ali campaigned for Chicken Tikka Masala to be granted ‘Protected Designated Origin’ status by the European Union. He was supported in this campaign by former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook who called it, “a crucial part of British culture”. He was unsuccessful.
However, in 2009, Glasgow Labour MP Mohammed Sarwar tabled a motion in the House of Commons calling for the curry to be labelled a “Glaswegian delicacy.”
His son Rashaid officially took over the running of the Shish Mahal, but Ali continued to turn up to work every day, regardless.
He spent lots of time working with various charities, donating lots of money to them. His son Asif Ali said, “He knew what it was like to be humble, he knew what it was like to be going through hard times.”
Sadly, there are no Indian restaurants left on Gibson Street in Glasgow.
After over 60 years working in Glasgow restaurants, he was suddenly taken ill and slipped into a coma. A nephew went to visit him. Ali suddenly woke up and said to his nephew, “Shouldn’t you be at work?”
When he died, the Shish Mahal shut for 2 days as a sign of respect.
His son Asif said, “The restaurant was his life. The chefs would make curry for him. I am not sure if he often ate chicken tikka masala though.”
He added, “He made Glasgow and Scotland his home. He was very, very proud of being Glaswegian, very, very proud of being Scottish. It was very important to him.”
Chicken tikka masala has often been voted Britain’s favourite food.
RIP – Restaurant Invents Platter