I have taught Indian cooking classes for almost 3 years now and have had the privilege to meet some great folks. Along the way I have shared a little something about me and this flavorful, diverse, not-really-that-complicated cuisine that I was fortunate to grow up with.
The most requested recipe I teach is Chicken Tikka Masala. Which always intrigues me because Chicken Tikka Masala may not really be an Indian dish! The lore behind the creation of this wildly popular Indian restaurant staple is varied to say the least. Some stories have it as a marriage between Chicken Tikka (tikka meaning small bites) from the Mughal era and the need for gravies brought to India by the British. Other stories point to the origin in north India around the late 1940’s as an off shoot of Murgh Makhni (better known as butter chicken). Still more tales say it originated in England in the mid-20th century.
No matter the story, it has become one of the best known Indian dishes, so well-known that British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook claimed it as Britain’s national dish in 2001.
This recipe is a perfect example of the complexities I love so much about Indian cuisine. To build flavor in an Indian dish I urge my students to check for the following steps in recipes:
- Fat – choose the proper fat. Different oils, ghee, butter can alter the dish right from the get go. For example, in this dish I use ghee to give a rich flavor.
- Tardka – use whole seeds and/or spices to flavor the fat. The possibilities are endless – cumin seeds, coriander seeds, whole spices, whole dried chilies, whole lentils; the list goes on and on.
- Aromatics – use onions, garlic, ginger, shallots and/or green chilies to provide the next layer of flavor.
- Dry Spices – add powdered, ground dry spices such as ground cumin, ground coriander or a mix of spices such as garam masala. Usually these spices are turned into the hot oil mix to help ‘cook’ the spices to make sure they don’t taste raw.
- Fresh – use fresh herbs/citrus to finish the dish. Use fresh chopped cilantro, a sprinkling of raw onions, and/or a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice for this final layer of flavor.
As you familiarize yourself with Indian cooking, you will start to recognize these steps.
Traditionally, chefs cook the boneless chicken in a tandoor oven. Then the cut-up, cooked chicken is added to the tomato/onion sauce which is thickened with cream.
Since most of us don’t have a tandoor oven handy in our home kitchens, we can improvise by using a very hot oven. In fact the recipe for cooking the chicken is quite similar to my recipe for Reshmi Chicken, although the spices are slightly different. Please don’t skip this step! Putting raw chicken into a tomato sauce will result in rubbery meat – not at all the texture we want in this dish 🙂
Additionally I have changed the original recipe by removing cream and using yogurt instead. Make sure to add the yogurt a bit at a time, incorporating each spoonful completely so that the yogurt doesn’t curdle. A mild, fresh yogurt is best, if too tart – the dish will become sour.
Lastly – as with most onion/tomato based sauces, do take your time to cook down both the onions and tomatoes – taking time with these steps will make a world of difference in the depth of flavor achieved.
Chicken Tikka Masala
- 1 tsp. salt
- juice of 1 lemon
- 3 Tbsp yogurt (not greek)
- 1 tsp garam masala
- ½ tsp chili powder
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast
- 1½ yellow onions, finely chopped (about 9 ounces)
- 6-8 medium tomatoes diced or 1 28oz can diced tomatoes
- ¼ cup ghee, butter or oil
- 6 cloves garlic, crushed
- 3 inch piece of ginger, minced or finely shredded
- Whole Spices
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 4-5 whole cloves
- 2 bay leaves
- 3-4 green cardamom pods
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- Dry Masala (dry spices)
- 2 tsp coriander powder
- 2 tsp cumin powder
- ¾ tsp red chili powder
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 2 tsp kasoori methi powder (dried fenugreek powder)
- ½ tsp amchur powder (dried mango powder)
- 1/2 – 3/4 cup yogurt (not greek)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste (optional)
- ¼ cup cilantro, chopped
- up to ¼ cup cream (optional)
To marinate chicken:
- Place chicken breasts in a shallow container. Cut 3 slits into chicken – making sure not to cut all the way through the meat.
- Sprinkle both sides of chicken with salt and lemon juice. Let sit for a few minutes.
- In the meantime, combine 3 tablespoons yogurt with garam masala, chili powder and cumin. Cover chicken with yogurt mixture and allow to marinate at least 15 minutes and for as long as overnight.
- When ready to make the dish, arrange racks in oven so that one rack is in highest position.
- Pre-heat oven to 550F. Place marinated chicken breasts on a baking sheet covered with foil (or a silpat).
- Once oven reaches temperature, place chicken in oven and cook for 15 minutes or until chicken is cooked thru. Remove chicken from oven and allow to rest. Chicken should be browned and a bit charred on top.
To make sauce:
- Heat a large pan on medium high heat. Add butter or oil and when hot add whole spices – cumin seeds, cinnamon stick, cloves, bay leaves and cardamom.
- Once cumin begins to sizzle, add onions. Cook onions until golden and edges are browned.
- Now add garlic and ginger, stir and cook for 30 seconds or so. Remove seeds/whole spices before continuing to the next step.
- Add tomatoes. Keep stirring and smashing the tomatoes to break them down and to keep the mixture from scorching. Cook tomatoes until you see oil/butter separating from the reduced tomatoes. The mixture will look shiny and be several shades darker at this point. This may take up to 10-15 minutes.
- Once tomatoes are cooked properly, reduce heat to medium-low and add dry masala – cumin, coriander, chili, turmeric, kasoori methi, and amchur powders. Stir to incorporate and coat the spices with the tomato mixture. Cook for 2-3 minutes.
- Add yogurt spoonful by spoonful – incorporating each addition completely before adding more.
- Once all yogurt is completely incorporated, add enough water to break up sauce and make it the consistency you desire.
- Add ¼ – ½ of mixture to a blender. Blend and then add back to pot.
- Now add salt and pepper to taste. Stir and then add tomato paste if desired. Stir to incorporate.
- Cut chicken in 1” pieces and add to sauce.
- Allow mixture to simmer 5-10 minutes to heat chicken and marry flavors.
- Drizzle in cream if using. You can either leave it as it or mix the cream into the sauce.
- Sprinkle cilantro on top – Serve with naan or rice.
Yield 4-6 servings
Please be sure to use a mild full fat or low-fat plain yogurt – that is to say nothing too tart, especially not a greek yogurt.