Chicken Tikka Masala – The Gateway to All Good Things

Many people seem intimidated to try Indian food. I’m not always very patient with picky eaters and I am also careful never to write off an entire national cuisine without actually trying it first. I’m honestly trying to think of cuisines that I dislike but I can almost always find something that doesn’t offend my delicate American palate. So when people tell me they don’t think they’d like Indian food, I always ask why. Usually it just comes down to, “Well I don’t know what it tastes like.” Well that’s the reason your four year old doesn’t want to try brussels sprouts so let’s try to branch out a little, mmm-kay?

Indian spices, ginger and garlic.
Indian spices, ginger and garlic.

And y’all, if you are still nervous, here is an analogy that my friend Matt (Hi Matt!) made: Indian food is like the Mexican food of the UK. We’ve got Mexican restaurants everywhere here in the US. They’ve got curry shops everywhere there. Both Indian food and Mexican food use a lot of cumin, coriander, cilantro, chiles and tomatoes. Both often include beans or rice with (or as) meals. Both are highly seasoned. Both feature delicious flatbreads. Really, don’t be scared. It’s good stuff! Trust me.

Mince garlic and ginger. Combine with spices. Mix half into yogurt with lemon juice. Reserve the other half of ginger-spice mixture for the sauce.
Mince garlic and ginger. Combine with spices. Mix half into yogurt with lemon juice. Reserve the other half of ginger-spice mixture for the sauce.

If I’m ever making a big Indian meal and I know that there are going to be people in attendance who have never tried Indian food, I ALWAYS make a big pot of chicken tikka masala. Chicken Tikka Masala is Indian in the way that General Tso’s Chicken is Chinese (i.e. only slightly). Although it’s heavily debated, one story of how chicken tikka masala came to be goes that an Indian chef in a restaurant in Glasgow added some creamy tomato soup to a curry dish that a customer sent back because he thought it too dry. The customer loved it and brought back friends to try it until the restaurant just added it to the menu permanently. An Anglo-Indian dish was born.

Marinate chicken 4-6 hours in yogurt mixture. Grill (or broil if you are having a monsoon like me) for about 5 minutes per side. Chop into bite sized pieces.
Marinate chicken 4-6 hours in yogurt mixture. Grill (or broil if you are having a monsoon like me) for about 5 minutes per side. Chop into bite sized pieces.

To me, chicken tikka masala is like the gateway drug to all good Indian food. If you like it, you will probably branch out to try other things. Eventually, you may find that you, much like me, prefer the hard stuff (spicy dals, curries, koftis, etc.). Because I intend to drag you down the spice road with me, I’m going to give you just a little taste here to get you hooked on the addiction that is Indian food.

Saute aromatics. Add reserved spice mixture and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook 1-2 minutes. Add tomatoes and simmer for about 20 minutes. Reduce heat. Add cream, chicken and cilantro. Simmer until chicken is cooked through.
Saute aromatics. Add reserved spice mixture and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook 1-2 minutes. Add tomatoes and simmer for about 20 minutes. Puree sauce, if desired. Reduce heat. Add cream, chicken and cilantro. Simmer until chicken is cooked through.

This is an amazing combination of marinated charred chicken in a spicy, creamy tomato sauce. This particular recipe has slightly less intense flavors than I typically go for with Indian food, but is a good introduction if you are new to the cuisine. Served with some basmati rice, roasted veggies and naan, it’s one of the best and most comforting meals you’ll make this fall!

Chicken Tikka Masala

  • 6 cloves garlic, minced into a paste
  • 3 inches fresh ginger, grated fine
  • 4 T garam masala (you can probably find on your spice aisle or at World Market)
  • 4 t ground coriander
  • 4 t ground cumin
  • 1/2 t cayenne pepper
  • 2-3 cardamom pods, crushed (if you can get them, if not, just skip it)
  • 2 T kosher salt
  • 1 C plain whole milk yogurt (I had two 5 oz containers so just went with it)
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 3 T vegetable oil, divided
  • 1-2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken (I like thighs but breasts are fine), if very thick, slice cross ways so they are a bit thinner
  • 1 jalapeno or serrano pepper, minced
  • 1/2 large onion, diced
  • 2 T tomato paste
  • 28 oz can diced tomatoes (no salt added if possible)
  • 3/4 cup half and half or heavy cream
  • 1/4 C fresh cilantro, chopped (reserving a little for garnish)
  • Cooked Basmati rice, for serving
  • Warmed naan (Indian bread) for serving (I can almost guarantee you will find it in your supermarket bakery department near the wraps and pita)

Combine garlic, ginger, garam masala, coriander, cumin, cayenne, cardamom and kosher salt in small bowl. Mix half of spice mixture with yogurt and lemon juice. Mix remaining spice mixture with 1 T vegetable oil and store in fridge until later. 

Add chicken to yogurt mixture and marinate 4-6 hours in fridge (I usually marinate in the morning so it’s ready to go when I get home from work at night).

Remove chicken from marinade and allow to come to room temp while you preheat. You can do this either in the oven broiler or over a charcoal grill (I wanted to grill but it was raining sideways at my house so Mother Nature chose for me). Either way, preheat to high and cook chicken on both sides until just starting to char and get yummy little black spots. Don’t worry that it’s not cooked through as it’s going to finish cooking in the sauce. Remove from heat, allow to rest for a few minutes and then cut into bite sized pieces.

For the sauce, heat oil over medium heat. Saute onion and chiles until just transluscent and starting to brown. Add reserved garlic-spice mixture and continue to saute until it smells amazing, taking care not to burn the garlic. Add tomato paste and continue to cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes until it is beginning to thicken. I like my sauce to be a little smoother so, at this point, I typically use my immersion blender (my VERY favorite kitchen gadget) to puree it a bit. You could also pour your sauce (CAREFULLY!) into a blender or just leave it chunky or puree your tomatoes before you put them in the pan. Reduce heat a little and add cream, cilantro and chopped chicken. Continue to simmer until chicken is cooked through.

Garnish with cilantro and serve with naan and basmati rice.

Namaste y'all.
Namaste y’all.
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