Chicken tikka masala has to rank as one of the finest hot and richly spiced curries. It’s certainly one of the most popular. Like a big comforting hug from someone who’s extra-special in your life, this is a dish to cherish and look forward to.
What to expect in chicken tikka masala
Fast-cooked, boneless pieces of chicken are served in a rich, creamy sauce with a sweet tomato and onion base. That firm foundation is built upon with cayenne chilies, garlic, ginger, a host of spices, yogurt, sugar, lemon juice, and heavy cream. It’s a simple sauce to make, but its layered flavors are anything but simple.
The name itself — often abbreviated to CTM — is a bit misleading. As a young man exploring the world of spiced, hot foods in early ‘80s London, I assumed it was a wonder from India. All the high-value-for-money Indian restaurants I ate in certainly served it. And many people ordered it. In fact, so many did that chicken tikka masala became by far the most popular item on almost every menu. It was exotic, hot, and full of extraordinary, new flavors. I loved it then as much as I do around 40 years later.
I came to learn that ‘tikka’ most often meant small pieces of fast-cooked meat that had been marinated in a salted combo of lemon juice and spiced yogurt. Likewise, I learnt that ‘masala’ referred to a mix of several typically Indian spices that had been toasted and ground to a powder. Add ‘garam’ — meaning hot — to the moniker, and you get chili-powered masala.
CTM is full of surprises
Much later, I was surprised to discover that chicken tikka masala is not an authentic Indian dish at all. Turns out it’s a British dish pretending to be Indian. Second surprise? It’s a child of the mid-1970s. So, if you place it in the long, long timeline of traditional Indian cuisine, CTM is a Johnny-come-lately impostor.
Tales of its precise origins are a bit murky. Some claim it was conceived in Glasgow, Scotland, while others — including the famous Indian cookery writer, Madhur Jaffrey — suggest Birmingham, England as its birthplace.
None of that really matters, given that chicken tikka masala became so incredibly desirable that it lifted itself to top spot on a list of Britain’s favorite meals — whether eaten out, as a take-away, store-bought and ready-made, or home cooked. Strangely, some posh Indian restaurants sneered at the dish and wouldn’t serve it simply because they thought it ‘common.’ How dumb can you be?
Boneless and skin-on is the way to go. A mix of thighs and breasts produces a grand mix of both flavor and texture — adding a couple more aspects to the multi-faceted character that defines this dish.
How the chicken is cooked — fast and hot on skewers — adds yet another dimension, allowing it to keep its identity when paired with the deeply rich masala sauce.
Why skin-on? Well, you want to capture all the flavor you can from the slightly fatty skin. The chicken doesn’t get served with its skin still on, but it does get crisply cooked alongside it, once stripped off the meat.
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Chicken Tikka Masala
For the chicken and its marinade
- 3 chicken breasts boneless, skin on
- 6 chicken thighs boneless, skin on
- 3/4 cup plain yogurt – full fat double thick
- 6 tablespoons lemon juice approximately the juice of 2 lemons
- 3 cloves garlic peeled and mashed
- 2 tablespoons fresh ginger peeled and grated
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground cumin
- 3 heaped teaspoons ground paprika
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground turmeric
- 1 heaped tablespoon garam masala
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
For the masala sauce
- 4 fresh cayenne peppers finely chopped, seeds and all
- 2 yellow onions medium-sized, peeled, and finely sliced
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and very finely sliced
- 6 green cardamom pods slightly crushed
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground cilantro
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 can peeled and chopped tomatoes 14-ounce can
- 2 heaped tablespoons tomato puree
- 2 heaped teaspoons brown sugar
- 4 tablespoons coconut oil – the odorless cooking type
- 1 tablespoon butter – full fat salted
- 4 tablespoons heavy cream
- 2 cups water
- Good handful of fresh cilantro leaves very finely chopped, stalks and all – for garnish
Preparing the chicken and its marinade
- This needs to happen at least 3 hours before you cook the chicken so that it really benefits from the flavors of the marinade.
- Remove the skin from the chicken thighs and breasts and keep it aside. Cut the chicken into good bite-sized chunks and lightly stab them all over with the tip of a small sharp knife. This helps the chunks pick up the full flavors of the marinade.
- In a mixing bowl, combine all the marinade ingredients. Once well mixed, add the chicken and use your fingers to give the pieces a through marinade. Cover the bowl and set it in the refrigerator. This will allow you ample, leisurely time to make the sauce.
Making the masala sauce
- Set a good-sized saucepan on a medium heat and add one level tablespoon butter and one of coconut oil. Now add the sliced onions, stir well, and drop the heat to low. You want the onions to turn a golden brown – but certainly not to crisp. So, cook for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally, and then add the sliced garlic. Cook for another two minutes to bring out the garlic’s flavor.
- Now add all the sauce’s other ingredients – except the fresh cilantro and the heavy cream – and turn the heat to medium high. As soon as the sauce starts to bubble, drop the heat to low and cover the pan. You want the sauce to thicken as it gently simmers for about 35 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Time to return to the chicken.
Cooking the chicken
- Remove all the chicken pieces from their marinade. Use your fingers to scrape off any excess marinade back into the mixing bowl.
- Now thread the chicken onto four ten-inch bamboo skewers. You want the pieces to be tightly bunched-up on the skewers.
- Set a large skillet onto a high heat and add three level tablespoons coconut oil. The oil needs to be hot enough to give the skewered chicken a hot-and-fast searing char on their outsides. You can test this by adding a few pieces of the chicken skin – if they curl and start to crisp almost immediately, the oil’s ready. As soon as the oil reaches that sort of sizzling temperature, drop the heat to medium high, and add all the remaining pieces of chicken skin. Stir them around so that their fat – and their flavor – melts into the hot oil. Good.
- Add all four skewers to the skillet. It’s now a hot, fry-and-turn process for about eight minutes to get that crispy, dark golden char on the chicken. As soon as that happens, turn off the heat, remove the skewers from the skillet, and set them aside to cool slightly.
- Now return the masala sauce to a medium-high heat and pour in all the remaining chicken marinade. Once it just starts to bubble, drop the heat to low, and stir in the heavy cream.
- Remove the chicken pieces from their skewers and add the chicken to the sauce. Allow the pieces to cook in the barely simmering sauce for three minutes. Done. Ready to rapidly serve – with a garnishing sprinkle of finely chopped cilantro.