I’ll admit it. Chicken Tikka Masala is one of my favorite dishes to order in Indian restaurants. The truth is, I feel a tad guilty about it. I know it’s not an authentic Indian recipe, and I am aware that it’s the ever-popular choice of the unknowing masses. But I can’t help it. It tastes good. The creamy, savory-sweet sauce (at its best when it has a hint of heat) and the tender medallions of yogurt-marinated chicken tikka make for a divine combination.
And to be fair, it is a close relative to Butter Chicken which is, in fact a true Indian dish invented in Delhi in the 1950s. Created almost by accident, Butter Chicken quickly became a favorite amongst international power players from Nehru to Kruschev. But you won’t find too much chicken Tikka Masala in India, and Butter Chicken is hard to come by at Indian restaurants in the US. London, however, has it all and the British have wisely adopted Indian food as their own. Former British Prime Minister Robin Cook declared in 2001, “Chicken Tikka Masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.”
So where did this British-Indian hybrid now omnipresent all over the world come from? The exact location is unclear, though many try to make a claim at its invention. The story goes that a British man was served the authentic Chicken Tikka (chicken medallions cooked in a Tandoor Oven) and sent the plate back, demanding gravy. The mystery cook added tomato soup and spices and the well-received dish, according to legend, was born. This was probably in the 1970s, but it’s surprisingly hard to say. For more reading on the interesting history this entry from Curry, Spice, and All Things Nice.
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that no two Chicken Tikka Masala recipes are the same. The basics call for chicken tikka, tomatoes, cream, and spices and there is a surprising amount of variation one can achieve with those simpleingredients. The most challenging step to making good Chicken Tikka Masala at home is preparing decent chicken tikka. Since most of us do not have the luxury of having a tandoor oven in our kitchens, the broiler is generally the next best option.
For this attempt – making an Indian-inspired, UK-invented dish in Israel – I went, oddly enough, with an American recipe from Food and Wine Magazine. In a bit of a rush, I skimped on all the times. You’re supposed to marinate the chicken over night and simmer everything for 40-plus minutes but I marinated the chicken for two hours and simmered for 20 minutes. I am including the full times because I’m sure they improve the overall product, but even with the shortcuts the chicken was tender and flavorful and the sauce was thick and satisfying. The broiled, marinated chicken was a delicious facsimile of Chicken Tikka and I would consider serving just that if the sauce wasn’t so damn good. I recommend blending the gravy with an immersion blender prior to adding the chicken for a smoother texture and more cohesive flavor, but it’s not necessary.
Chicken Tikka Masala
Adapted from Food and Wine Magazine
Yield: 4 Servings
1 cup plain low-fat yogurt
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
1½ teaspoons ground cumin
1½ teaspoons ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2½ pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts or thighs, fat trimmed and each piece halved
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
¼ cup blanched whole almonds
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1½ tablespoons garam masala
1½ teaspoons pure chile powder
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (substitute hot paprika)
One 35-ounce can peeled tomatoes, finely chopped, juices reserved
Pinch of sugar
1 cup heavy cream
For the Chicken Tikka:
In a large glass or stainless steel bowl, combine the yogurt, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cayenne and turmeric. Season with salt and pepper. Using a sharp knife, make a few shallow slashes in each piece of chicken. Add the chicken to the marinade, turn to coat and refrigerate two hours or overnight. Preheat the broiler and position a rack about 8 inches from the heat. Remove the chicken from the marinade; scrape off as much of the marinade as possible. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and spread the pieces on a baking sheet. Broil the chicken, turning once or twice, until just cooked through and browned in spots, about 12 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and cut it into 2-inch pieces.
For the Masala Gravy:
Heat 1 teaspoon of the oil in a skillet. Add the almonds and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer the almonds to a plate and let cool completely. In a food processor, pulse the almonds until finely ground.
In a large skillet or casserole, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil until shimmering. Add the onion, garlic and ginger and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until tender and golden, about 8 minutes. Add the garam masala, chile powder and cayenne and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes with their juices and the sugar and season with salt and pepper. Cover partially and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is slightly thickened, about 20 minutes. Add the cream and ground almonds and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 10 minutes longer. Blend with an immersion blender until smooth, if desired.
To Assemble and Serve:
Stir the chicken into the gravy; simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Serve with steamed Basmati or Jasmine rice and warm naan (laffa and pita make excellent substitutes).