International cooking for the youthful malcontent.

Chicken Tikka Masala

Chicken Tikka Masala

Hey look, it’s everyone’s favourite British culinary creation. That’s right, tikka masala keeps showing up in Indian restaurants, but it’s not a traditional Indian-style curry. For one thing, the sauce is made almost entirely of tomatoes. There’s a very good reason tomatoes haven’t appeared in Indian cuisine until more recently: the tomato is native to South America. Since “The Americas” weren’t “discovered” yet, no one else in the world had any access to the tomato until the Spanish brought it back to Europe around 1500 or so, and from there it slowly spread across the globe (the Middle East didn’t start cultivation until around the 18th century).  An interesting side note: Italy only began incorporating the tomato into it’s cuisine somewhere around the 16th-18th centuries; the now-ubiquitous tomato sauce is relatively new to Italian cuisine. Stew on that for a while.

So, chicken tikka masala? It is commonly accepted to have been invented in the UK (Glasgow maybe) and if I was picky, I’d say it’s almost fusion, but mostly it’s still a product of Indian culinary techniques and traditions.

We’re going to use a similar process that we’ve used previously in the chicken korma recipe (again, notice the similarities in curry procedures) with a three stage process: marinading and roasting the meat, then preparing the sauce and finally combining the two and merging the flavours into one absurdly tasty meal. How tasty? Come on, we’re talking about slow-simmered tomato sauce loaded with ginger and onion and ghee, flavoured and coloured with rich, roasted aromatic spices like cinnamon, cumin, black cardamom, and kashmiri chili powder. Then we add the secret ingredient, kasoori methi or dried fenugreek leaves, which provides a distinctive aroma reminiscent of Indian kitchens and curry shops. If that wasn’t ridiculous enough, then we smooth out the sauce with a splash of whipping cream (I just heard some people fainting), sweeten it with honey, and top it with fresh cilantro for one of the most flavour-packed dishes you may ever taste.

And did I mention we’re going to marinate the chicken pieces in yogurt, ginger, garlic and tandoori masala first? We are not fooling around with this one. This isn’t a hard dish to make by any stretch, but it will consume a lot of time. We’re talking about 1.5 hours of cooking time after the chicken is finished marinading (for which I always recommend a full day). Sounds absurd, right? Well, it’s not a weekday meal, but if you want to do something special for yourself (or someone else), this is it.

Marinade Ingredients:

  • package of chicken thighs (6), each thigh cut into 2-4 large chunks
  • 1/2 cup thick yogurt (I use Greek-style)
  • 2 or 3 tsp tandoori masala
  • 1 tsp kosher or coarse salt
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 inch knob of ginger, peeled and finely chopped

Marinade Directions:

  1. In a medium-sized glass bowl, add the yogurt.
  2. Measure and add all the spices, salt, garlic and ginger. Stir them into the yogurt until all the spices are evenly distributed.
  3. Add the chicken chunks and stir them to make sure each piece is covered completely with the spiced yogurt.
  4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and store in the fridge for 2 hours minimum, or 1 day preferably.

Sauce Ingredients:

  • 1 tbsp ghee
  • 2 inch knob of ginger, finely chopped
  • 1 can (800 ml or approx.) chopped tomato, do not discard the water
  • 1-2 tbsp ghee
  • 1 sliced onion (cut it in half, then slice each half thinly to produce strips shaped like “C”s)
  • 1 tsp kasoori methi (dried fenugreek leaves – these could be omitted, but you will lose a distinct flavour/scent quality of the dish)
  • 1 tsp garam masala (try this one)
  • 1 tsp kashmiri chili powder (or just regular chili powder if you aren’t stocking this)
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1-2 tbsp honey (roughly somewhere between 1 and 2 tbsp; it’s your preference)
  • 1/4 cup whipping cream
  • cilantro leaves to garnish

Serve with: naan, basmati rice

What you will need: 8 medium-sized bamboo skewers for the chicken, broiler sheet or baking sheet, large saute pan and wooden spoon, medium-sized bowl, paper towels, measuring cups and spoons, knife and cutting board

Directions:

  1. Heat the first tbsp of ghee in a your large saute pan over medium heat (4 on my dial).
  2. Once the ghee is melted and hot, add the chopped ginger, and fry it for about 2 minutes, until the ginger becomes fragrant.
  3. Pour in the entire can of tomatoes, juices and all, into the pan. Stir to combine the ginger into the tomato sauce and keep the heat at medium until the tomatoes begin to bubble. Then turn to heat to low (1 on my dial) and simmer the tomato sauce for about 30 minutes. Why so long? Because we’re breaking down the tomato chunks into a sauce. Pureed tomato is still raw-tasting, but slow-cooked whole tomato will break down into a sweet, flavourful sauce.
  4. While the tomato sauce begins to simmer, turn on your broiler to 500 F – we’re going to cook the chicken pieces while we wait. Ideally, we’d BBQ the chicken skewers properly. There’s really no replacing charcoal-flavour, or tandoor oven flavour, but we’ll make do.
  5. Pull the chicken out of the fridge and thread several chunks onto each bamboo skewer. Whatever yogurt marinade is left, save it in the bowl for later. Space them out on the broiler sheet and start roasting the chicken. Broil the chicken until the edges turn dark brown and crispy and then turn over and do the other side. This will take maybe 10 minutes per side, but don’t time it exactly. Just keep an eye on them and make sure they don’t burn and they’re cooked all the way through (no pink on the inside – cut one of the larger pieces in half to check this)
  6. While the chicken is finishing give the tomato sauce a stir or two to let it know you’re still paying attention and that you care.
  7. Once the chicken is done, removed from the oven and cooling, and your sauce has been simmering for at least 30 minutes, transfer the tomato sauce out of the pan and into a bowl. With a few paper towels, give the pan a quick wipe to remove any little bits of tomato and excess oils. You want a clean plan because we’re going to fry onions next.
  8. Put the pan back on the fire and turn the heat up to medium (4-5 on my dial) and melt the next 1-2 tbsp of ghee into the pan.
  9. Add the chopped onion and fry it, stirring a few times, until the edges become lightly browned and the onion is softened somewhat. This will take a few minutes, 2 or 3.
  10. When the onion is done, pour the tomato sauce back into the pan. What? Why did we remove it just for the onion? Because we wanted to fry the onions properly, not just let them get soft in a bath of hot tomato; browning things makes them taste better. The heat’s on medium, so the tomato sauce should start bubbling again in a few minutes. Lower the heat back down to 1 or 2 again.
  11. Add the spices (kasoori methi, garam masala, and chili powder), salt and honey to the sauce. Allow the sauce to simmer for 20-30 more minutes. Why so long? Because we’re allowing the spices to flavour the sauce thoroughly.
  12. Once the sauce is infused with flavour (seriously, try a little bit for yourself – it may even taste a bit too intense but it’s ok because) we’re going to add the whipping cream. The cream will take the edge off the spices and provide a richer texture to the tomatoes. Give it a few stirs and then let it simmer. Allow 4-5 minutes for this.
  13. Now, slide the  chicken chunks off the skewers and into the sauce. Assuming you saved the excess marinade from the chicken bowl, add that too and stir it all together. It’s all extra flavour. Give the dish about 10 minutes to get the chicken back up to a nice temperature.
  14. Transfer the curry to a serving bowl and topped it with a handful of shredded cilantro.

Phew. Ridiculous, right? Like I said, it’s not an everyday type of thing, but I’ve made it about 4-5 times and it’s always rewarding. That said, I think the actual cooking being done here is very simple. There’s only a few ingredients that require attention, the rest is simply stirring and simmering. Lengthy, but ultimately quite user-friendly (there’s several periods where you can leave the kitchen for 20 minutes and relax or mix yourself a stiff drink). The upside, if great food isn’t an upside enough, is that the results are pretty impressive relative to the effort required; a combination of a few unique ingredients with some old familiar ones yields a dish with a smell and taste most people don’t think they can achieve at home.

Make it Vegan

I like this dish so much, I’m going to suggest a way for vegans to enjoy it as well. Much of the flavour comes from vegan-friendly ingredients: ginger, tomato, whole spices, etc. so a vegan-version would stand up quite well I think.

Substitutions:

  • vegetable oil for ghee (or, if you have it, coconut oil)
  • plain soy yogurt for yogurt (or simply omit the yogurt altogether, and marinate in garlic, ginger and spices only)
  • for the chicken, try: fried cauliflower (this is already a dish: Gobi Tikka Masala, but do not add the yogurt to the marinade if you go this route, and you may want to bread the cauliflower lightly with chickpea or rice flour), grilled tempeh, paneer cubes, or regular tofu. All of these could easily be marinated in the same spice mixture.
  • brown sugar for honey (if you’re the kind of vegan who thinks eating honey is like stealing from bees)
  • coconut cream for whipping cream

Suggested name for this: Tofikka Masala

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5 responses

  1. Anuja

    So good. Ridiculously good. Rich and delicious – and makes for fantastic leftovers!

    January 27, 2010 at 4:12 pm

  2. Margo

    I was reading this and wishing it was vegetarian and then- BAM!- vegan substitutions. Maybe Taryn will make this for me if I ask nicely….

    January 27, 2010 at 4:31 pm

  3. Jay

    Came across your recipe (the non-vegan one) and it looks to be an awesome one to try. Only part that concerns me is step 13 “.. Assuming you saved the excess marinade from the chicken bowl, add that too and stir it all together.” Would that not be dangerous to do with all the bacteria from the raw chicken that was marinating in it?

    August 24, 2012 at 2:56 am

    • Not particularly, no. There’s no bacteria in the bowl that isn’t already on the chicken or in the yogurt. So long as you cook everything (and the step also asks for another 10 minutes of simmering) thoroughly, you’re fine. If you’re worried still, just omit that step completely. You won’t be missing anything important.

      August 24, 2012 at 8:20 am

  4. Jay

    Thanks for putting my mind at ease Jeff. I’ll stick with incorporating the marinade then. 🙂

    August 25, 2012 at 12:12 am

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