Chicken Tikka Masala.

flag-mini-british flag-mini-Scotland Chicken Tikka Masala sits atop a culinary tree sprouting from a one simple word: tikka. In Hindi, it means "bits, pieces." From there, it grows to "chicken tikka" -- chicken marinated in seasoned yogurt and broiled in a clay tandoor (or a really hot oven). One can conclude that either pieces are marinated and broiled, or the cooked chicken is cut into pieces. And finally, Chicken Tikka Masala is those bits and pieces of broiled marinated chicken simmered in a tomato-based sauce seasoned with aromatic Indian spices such as coriander and garam masala. Sound good?

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What, you ask, does this Indian dish have to do with that little British flag at the top of this blog post? Well, like Kedgeree, Chicken Tikka Masala (henceforth "CTM") comes together as a sort-of hybrid of British and Indian cuisines, and its exact origins are sketchy. Some say it was created in Punjab sometime in the past 50 years, while others believe it came about -- some say in Glasgow, some say in 1970's London -- when a Brit decided his chicken tikka was too dry and "demanded" some British-style gravy to go with it. The annoyed Indian chef, so the tale goes, mixed Campbell's tomato soup with spices and yogurt to create a creamy, fragrant tomato sauce that, when mixed with chicken tikka, would go on to become one of Britain's most popular restaurant dishes.
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I discovered CTM only recently and was curious to find out how easily makeable it was. My first attempts to make Indian food were inspired by my purchase of
The Vegetarian Table: India by Yamuna Devi. That was probably inspired by my then 8-year-old son's decision to become a vegetarian. He was earnest in his desire not to eat animals (it was a revelation to learn bacon was meat, let alone that it came from pigs), so I bought a few vegetarian cookbooks, including one specifically geared for kids.
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In truth, after a week or so his craving for meat revisited him, and although he hopped back on the veggie bandwagon a few times -- wrestling with the animal flesh issue -- he has made peace with being a carnivore. But it was fun going through the books and coming up with ways to keep meat out of our meals. I donated most of the veg cookbooks (but kept
Simple Vegetarian Pleasures by Jeanne Lemlin -- it's a good one), and truly regret not hanging onto that Indian cookbook (although I see it for $1.90 at Amazon!).
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At the time I found Indian food UNBELIEVABLY TIME-CONSUMING. I made
one Indian meal for the two other single moms and their kids who lived in our building, and I swear it took me three days from start to finish, what with sauteeing spices, marinating things in yogurt, seeding jalapenos, chopping fresh fruit, toasting sesame seeds and so on. Indian women must be absolute masters at engineering the advanced prep that goes into cooking for their families. I salute them. The meal I made was delicious (if I say so myself), but I was utterly spent afterward and vowed I would thenceforth eat Indian food only in restaurants.
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Chicken Tikka Masala won't take you three days to cook, I promise. It's not exactly fast food, but if you
buy garam masala (yes I made mine, lo those many years ago -- pan-toasted the spices and ground them up in an old coffee maker--took some time but good golly it smelled amazing!) and don't aspire to anything so slow-food as slaughtering your own chickens and culturing yogurt from scratch, it shouldn't take more than a few hours on a weekend afternoon. If you're ambitious, you'll have time to slip a batch of naan in there too.
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The absolute best part of cooking CTM is frying the fragrant spices until your kitchen, nay your entire house, smells so heady and heavenly you'll think you died and went to Delhi. Then it only gets better when you add tomatoes, spicy peppers, tomato paste or sauce, and a bit of cream. You'll want to eat the air above your stove.

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The yogurt-marinated chicken breasts broiled quickly and very nicely in the oven. It's a poor substitute for an actual tandoor, 'tis true, but one makes do with the tools at hand. When the broiled chicken pieces cool, cut them into tikka cubes.
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There are so many versions of CTM, each just slightly different from the next, and it was hard choosing one. I finally combined a recipe from Pioneer Woman's site (actually a guest post from the VERY cool Pastor Ryan) with one from Mrs. Wheelbarrow (how fun is that name!). I do that. Sometimes I faithfully follow a recipe, especially when it involves the chemistry of successful baking. But with cooking, I tend to tinker a bit -- tweaking this, adding that, omitting this, increasing that to suit my tastes. Since there doesn't seem to be a definitive CTM recipe, I'm not worried about being authentic and did make some minor adjustments to the two combined recipes.
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The Pioneer Woman/Pastor Ryan recipe includes directions for gorgeous golden turmeric rice with a cup of frozen peas. I cut the amount of turmeric down to two teaspoons and feel I could have gone down even more. A subtle gold colored rice, instead of blazing yellow, would have been equally appetizing, I think.
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Add a plate of buttered (my favorite!) freshly pan-cooked naan -- the recipe I used doesn't require activating yeast or proofing the dough (well sort of -- you let it sit for two hours but it doesn't really rise), and you just might believe you're at your favorite Indian restaurant. Or somewhere in London or possibly Glasgow.
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Britain's Food Service Intelligence (like the CIA for food? ) reports that Chicken Tikka Masala is the most popular dish ordered in restaurants throughout the U.K. And the late Robin Cook, a British Member of Parliament, proclaimed in 2006 that "Chicken Tikka Masala is now a true British national dish ... 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." I'm not clear on whether everyone agrees with Cook that CTM should usurp, say, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding as a national culinary treasure, but it sounds like a lot of people are eating it over there.

For hoots, check out the
Little People Project's whimsically weird "Chicken Tikka Disasta."

Chicken Tikka Masala
Serves a small crowd, or 2 for several days running

3-4 chicken breasts
Kosher or other sea salt
Ground coriander
Ground cumin
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1 Tablespoon lemon juice

2 Tablespoons butter or canola oil
1/2 large white or yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 2-inch knob fresh ginger, peeled and grated
2-3 teaspoons garam masala, or more to taste
2” piece of warm/hot (but not scorching) chile pepper, such as Anaheim, sliced thinly
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes OR for creamier sauce 1 14-oz. can finely diced tomatoes plus 1 14-oz. can tomato sauce
1-2 Tablespoons sugar

1-1/2 cups light cream, skim evaporated milk, or fat free half-and-half (use heavy cream if your doctor has advised you to get more fat in your diet)

2 cups basmati, jasmine rice or other rice
1-2 teaspoons ground turmeric
sprinkling of salt
1 cup frozen or thawed green peas (optional)

Chopped parsley or cilantro (otional)

Make chicken: Sprinkle chicken breasts with ground coriander, cumin, and small amount of kosher salt on both sides. Stir lemon juice into yogurt and mix thoroughly. Brush over both sides of chicken breasts and let sit snuggled together in a pie plate for 30-60 minutes. (Good time to start chopping veggies.) Transfer to foil-lined baking pan and set about 10-12 inches below broiler heat/flame. Cook completely on both sides, allowing them to char and bubble a little. Keep an eye on them! Remove from oven and set aside to cool. Once cool, cut into bite-sized cubes.

Make sauce: While chicken is cooling, heat 2 tablespoons of butter or oil in a large skillet. Add onions and sautee until lightly browned. Add garlic, ginger, garam masala, and sliced chiles. Stir together for a minute or two. Pour in the can of chopped tomatoes, or tomatoes plus sauce, and 1 Tablespoon sugar. Simmer for about 5 minutes, then taste to see if it needs the other tablespoon of sugar. (You don’t want it sweet, but the sugar can balance the spices and heat of the chile.) Add cubed chicken to sauce and let simmer over low heat while you finish up everything else.

Make rice: in a large sauce pan add rice, a dash of salt ,1-2 teaspoons of turmeric (depending on how yellow you want the rice to be) and recommended amount of water (probably around 4 cups). Cook according to directions for the rice you are using. When rice is almost done, toss in a cup of frozen or thawed peas. This makes a lot of rice, but we found it to be just right for the amount of leftovers.

Serve hot Chicken Tikka Masala over or next to the lovely green-pea-studded golden rice along with warm naan. Cheers!

As always, feel free to leave a comment below.