Exploring Chicken Tikka Masala: Facts, Folklore, and Recipes

Updated on July 8, 2020
Carb Diva profile image

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Chicken tikka masala is a savory curry dish flavored with earthy spices, tomato, and cream
Chicken tikka masala is a savory curry dish flavored with earthy spices, tomato, and cream | Source

It's Not Indian . . . It's British!

The curry dish chicken tikka masala is wildly popular in England. It's so prevalent, so popular, so every-day that it’s referred to as CTM. Roughly 2.5 billion pounds of it were sold in the United Kingdom in 2009. In fact, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook declared it to be the national dish of Great Britain.

That’s pretty amazing for an Indian dish, don’t you think?

Oh, but that’s just it—CTM wasn’t created in south Asia centuries ago and then transported to the United Kingdom with colonialism. Many food historians think it began this way.

In the 1970s there was a restaurant in the west end of Glasgow, Scotland named Shish Mahal. Although by then curry houses were commonplace in the United Kingdom, this one stood out from the rest. The owner, Ali Ahmed Aslam, did not simply offer curry. Those who walked into his restaurant were welcomed with smartly-dressed waiters, a rich décor, and a dazzling choice of menu options.

As the story goes, a tired and famished truck driver came in and ordered a chicken tikka. He complained that the dish was too dry and sent it back to the kitchen. As everyone knows, Brits love their gravies and sauces, and so the chef pulled a few items off the shelf to revive the dish—a can of tomato soup, spices, a dab of yogurt—and chicken tikka masala was born.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Whole spices (cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, black peppercorns, cloves)Boneless, skinless chicken thighsTomato puree for marinade
Whole spices (cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, black peppercorns, cloves)
Whole spices (cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, black peppercorns, cloves) | Source
Boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Boneless, skinless chicken thighs | Source
Tomato puree for marinade
Tomato puree for marinade | Source

Three Important Components of CTM

Chicken: Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are the usual choice because they are lean and cook quickly. I prefer to use chicken thighs; I think the dark meat has more flavor and, although it takes a little longer to cook, it remains moist. It's possible to buy boneless, skinless thighs, but they are really pricey. You can also do your own (with practice). I take the easy way out and use skinless, bone-in thighs (and legs too if that's what's available). Yes, they take longer to cook, but I prepare my CTM on a low simmer. The bones also add some gelatin to the sauce which helps to thicken.

Marinade: This is truly what makes a perfect masala; the blend of spices will make it, or break it. The perfect CTM marinade begins with a perfect garam masala. I'll give you my recipe below.

Sauce: The third component is the sauce, a blend of tomato and cream. We won't be using the Shish Majal's original rescue effort with a can of tomato soup. Canned tomatoes are pureed in a blender until smooth as silk, and then mixed with coconut milk. Yes, most recipes recommend heavy cream, but coconut milk has all the richness without the guilt.

 
1 cup of heavy whipping cream
1 cup of Thai Kitchen unsweetened coconut milk
Calories
205.3
45
Total fat
22.0 grams
4 grams
Cholesterol
81.5 mg
0 mg
Sodium
22.6 mg
0 mg

Recipes

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A perfect plate of chicken tikka masalaMasala herbsMasala paste2# chicken marinating in a mixture of yogurt and masala pasteChicken simmering in tikka masala sauce
A perfect plate of chicken tikka masala
A perfect plate of chicken tikka masala | Source
Masala herbs
Masala herbs | Source
Masala paste
Masala paste | Source
2# chicken marinating in a mixture of yogurt and masala paste
2# chicken marinating in a mixture of yogurt and masala paste | Source
Chicken simmering in tikka masala sauce
Chicken simmering in tikka masala sauce | Source

Basic Chicken Tikka Masala (With Homemade Garam Masala Spice and Paste)

Equipment Needed

  • food processor
  • rubber scraper
  • food storage container (for raw chicken)
  • measuring cups and spoons
  • large saute pan with lid
  • instant-read thermometer

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup masala paste, divided (see recipe and notes below)
  • 1/2 cup yogurt
  • 2 pounds of skinless chicken (I used bone-in legs and thighs)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cups tomato puree (I process 1 can of diced tomatoes in the blender)
  • 1 cup of canned coconut milk

Instructions

  1. Combine 2 tablespoons of the masala paste and the yogurt in a sealable container to make a paste-type marinade. (I chose a reusable plastic container). Add the chicken pieces and turn to coat with the marinade. Cover and store in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours, stirring once or twice.
  2. Heat oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Carefully add the chicken (it will spatter a little). Cook about 4 minutes or until nicely browned on one side. Turn and continue to cook until browned on other side as well. The chicken will not be done.
  3. Add the tomato puree and the remaining masala paste; reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165°F.
  4. Remove lid, stir in coconut milk, and simmer about 5 minutes more. Remove from heat and allow to sit for 5 minutes (this will allow the sauce to thicken a little).

Serve over steamed brown rice. Garnish with fresh cilantro. Makes 4 servings.

Masala Paste

Ingredients

  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger paste
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons garam masala powder (bottled or use my recipe below)
  • 1/2 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • cilantro stems (about 1/4 cup)

Instructions

  1. Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Process until almost smooth (the cilantro stems might put up a bit of a battle).

This recipe will make about 1 cup; enough for our recipe today plus leftovers. This will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for about 1 week. It can also be frozen.

Garam Masala Powder

Of course, you can purchase garam masala (in Hindi garam = hot, and masala = mixed spices) at the grocery store, but homemade is always so much fresher and flavorful.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 2 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 2 tablespoons cardamom pods
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon whole cloves (the seed, not garlic cloves)
  • 2 inches of cinnamon stick
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder

Instructions

  1. Place a skillet over medium-high heat. Pour in all of the whole seeds/spices (everything except the nutmeg and cayenne). Toast in the dry pan, stirring frequently, until aromatic. Don't let them burn!
  2. Remove from the pan and allow to fully cool to room temperature.
  3. Place in a clean coffee grinder and whir until a fine powder. You will probably need to shake and tap the grinder several times. Add the nutmeg and cayenne to the mixture and whir one more time to get thoroughly mixed.
  4. This makes more than you will need for your CTM recipe. Store the remainder in a clean jar and store in a cool, dry place. It should keep about 6 months.

Slow cooker chicken tikka masala
Slow cooker chicken tikka masala | Source

Slow Cooker Chicken Tikka Masala

Chicken tikka is rich and flavorful, tender bits of chicken enrobed in a savory sauce of tomato, cream, and warm spices. That slow simmer takes time, but that doesn't mean that your family can't enjoy this dish on a weeknight. Julie has developed a slow-cooker chicken tikka masala that can be prepared the night before, and then cooked during the day, low and slow. Imagine walking into your home after a hard day's work and smelling those wonderful aromas.

Vegan tikka masala
Vegan tikka masala | Source

Vegan Tikka Masala

Vegetarian tikka masala recipes are easy to find on the internet, but most of them use chickpeas (garbanzo beans) in place of the chicken—certainly a healthy choice, but uninspired. Nora marinates extra-firm tofu and bakes it in the oven until crisp and golden. Instead of merely cutting the tofu into cubes, she rough-tears it to give it a more chicken-like appearance. Tofu on its own is very mild and unassuming, with little flavor of its own. It soaks up all of those wonderful flavors of the creamy tomato sauce to create a rich and satisfying bowl of comfort.

Keto chicken tikka masala meatballs
Keto chicken tikka masala meatballs | Source

Chicken Tika Masala Meatballs

Slow-cooker CTM rewards you with a savory meal at the end of a hard day, but only if you've had the time for some prep work the night before and in the morning. What if you arrive home, without a plan, and just must have CTM? This recipe for chicken tikka masala meatballs is a perfect solution.

Chicken tikka masala pizza
Chicken tikka masala pizza | Source

Chicken Tikka Masala Pizza

What could be better than chicken tikka masala? What about using it as a topping on a crisp pizza crust and then covering it all with melty mozzarella cheese? Bee created this dish with her friend A. Pizza was the inspiration, but what kind? "Indian" sounded good, all those warm savory spices and tomato cream sauce, and so chicken tikka masala pizza was born.

© 2020 Linda Lum

Comments

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    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Mary, I used up a few more tablespoons of the masala paste last night by stirring it into a sauce of coconut milk and peanut butter. So, it's versatile and the leftovers can be used in other dishes. I think it would be good for a vegetarian "stew" of potatoes and chickpeas too.

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 

      4 weeks ago from Brazil

      Oh Wow. Although it isn't one I used to order when I lived in the UK, this sounds delicious. I look forward to making it.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Dora, I hope you'll give the recipe a try

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      4 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for sharing the Chicken Tikka Masala recipe along with its origin. You make it look so good!

    • Danny Fernandes profile image

      Danny 

      4 weeks ago from India

      Sure definitely, will leave my comments

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Danny, simply enter this phrase (including the quotation marks) in your search window. "how to make authentic chicken curry AND delishably"

    • Danny Fernandes profile image

      Danny 

      4 weeks ago from India

      Surely, I would relish it :)

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Lisha, it's my pleasure. I do hope that you enjoy it. I will be using my leftover masala paste tonight, using it to make a coconut milk/peanut simmer sauce.

    • Lisha C profile image

      Lisha C 

      4 weeks ago

      This is one of my favorite dishes. I often order it at restaurants, but I don't know why I never thought to try making it myself. I must try this some time, thank you for sharing the recipe.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Danny, several years ago I wrote an article entitled "How to Make Authentic Chicken Curry." Perhaps you would like that one.

    • Danny Fernandes profile image

      Danny 

      4 weeks ago from India

      Welcome Linda, waiting for more such recipes

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Eric, that's why I like to make my own spice blends; of course you can add more turmeric if that's what you like. Like they say at Burger King "Have it your way."

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Delicious. I just assumed Indian. How can you go wrong with chicken, tomato and curry? This is definitely going on the table. I think my southeastern Asia people will gobble it up. Can I add a pinch or more of Tumeric -- I think so.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Bill, it's a lucky thing for you that I appreciate your sense of humor. Yes, I know all about the bad rep that British food gets (and some of it deservedly so), but this wasn't made by a Brit by birth, so perhaps that are a few redeeming qualities in this dish.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Manatita, it was you who gave me the inspiration for writing this article. Months ago perhaps 5 or 6) I wrote of Chicken Marsala, and you read it as Chicken Masala (close but very different). I would love to have a naan bread right this moment--I've not had breakfast yet and my tummy is rumbling.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Hi Sis. What's the worst that could happen? I think he'd like it. Spicy flavorful but not spicy hot. Thanks for the tip; I set up a template and meant to fill those in after I prepared the dish and forgot to go back and edit.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Pamela, that's one of the reasons that I like making my own spice mixtures. If you don't like cumin (or aren't a huge fan) you can always adjust and use less.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Thank you Danny. That's quite a nice compliment.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      You can't trust any dish which is wildly popular among the Brits. Words to live by. lol Still, I love chicken, so there's hope for this one.

      What a strange sense of humor I have. Sure glad you like me despite it.

      Rain here right now....blessedly cool!

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      4 weeks ago from london

      Don't call my channa uninspired. I happen to like it very much, thank you! That is what you call the chick peas (Garbanzo beans), but we do a nice curry and add some rice and peas. Delicioso! One can have it with nan bread or roti/puri as necessay and a mango lassi to top things of nicely. Heaven on Earth!

      You tell some wonderful stories. I still say that the chicken tikka massala is Indian.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      4 weeks ago from Central Florida

      My son is a chicken eating machine. I'll check to see if he'd like this. I know he likes spicy food, but not sure about curry.

      BTW, you have a couple of measurements of time and wet measure that say "x". Stuck key problem?

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      I have never had this dish but I would like to try it. I don't like dishes that have a lot of cumin but some is okay.I appreciate all these recipes and the bit of history, Linda.

    • Danny Fernandes profile image

      Danny 

      4 weeks ago from India

      Amazing article. This reminds me of Indian culture of Tandoor nights and curries.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 weeks ago from Washington State, USA

      Flourish, it's not always possible, but when I can I try to find a veg/vegan and/or a gluten free option. I love my readers.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      4 weeks ago from USA

      My daughter would probably like this. I like how many variations on the theme you were able to find (as always).

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