Exploring Chicken Tikka Masala: Facts, Folklore, and Recipes
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.
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
Basic Chicken Tikka Masala (With Homemade Garam Masala Spice and Paste)
- food processor
- rubber scraper
- food storage container (for raw chicken)
- measuring cups and spoons
- large saute pan with lid
- instant-read thermometer
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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
- 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!
- Remove from the pan and allow to fully cool to room temperature.
- 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.
- 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
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
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.
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
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