Chicken Tikka Masala

If I had to pick a signature dish, this would be it. Not only is it the one I make the most for friends and family, but it is the greatest “zero-to-hero” recipe of my cooking career. Queue the cooking failure story!

My first attempt was a few years back, while I was pregnant with our little one. I blindly followed a random online recipe, using store bought garam masala and ground spices. The sauce turned out really heavy and bland in the worst ways. The memory I have of it still makes me cringe, though it is probably in part due to the fog of constant nausea from the glorious state of the first trimester.

After our girl came into the world, I began the quest again. I tried dozens of recipes, from Madhur Jaffery to Jamie Oliver to the Pioneer Woman. None of them quite satisfied, so I struck out on my own. It’s been a long haul, but I think I finally nailed it. It is beyond delicious, and I think it’s right on par with the tikka masalas of Indian restaurants. It’s so good that I think I’m done revising the recipe. Though it’s not a promise that I won’t change something in the future, I present to you the chicken tikka masala recipe.


Some notes about the recipe:

  • While I am often in favor of 30 minute meals made with basic ingredients, this dish is neither of those. It takes me about an hour and half (including prep and cooking time), and it does require some special ingredients like…..
  • Whole spices. I like going to the Asian market because not only do they have a huge selection of whole spices, but they’re way cheaper than a grocery store. Also, you might realize that they have other ingredients there that are also way cheaper than the grocery store. Win win!
  • Grinding the spices isn’t too hard, but it does require a blender, food processor, or clean spice grinder. In times of necessity, I have put the spices in a zip-lock bag and gone at them with a rolling pin, but I would highly encourage the electronic means of pulverizing spices.
  • You have to do the little things in the recipe that take time. You must let the onions turn a deep caramel color before continuing, and you must let the tomatoes reduce considerably before adding other ingredients.  These are two little things that will make all the difference in the completed sauce.

If those notes scared you off, just know that the time and effort put into this dish is worth it! It will taste amazing, it will fill your house with incredible smells, and you will have the glory of knowing that you can make stunning Indian food at home.

Chicken Tikka Masala

Makes 5 generous portions

For the garam masala (spice mix)

1 star anise
5 green cardamom pods
2 cinnamon sticks
5 whole cloves

Put all the spices in the pot you will cook the tikka in and turn the heat to medium.  Dry-toast the spices until fragrant. Crush the spices in a blender, food processor, or clean coffee grinder until fine. Set aside.

For the tikka masala

Butter and vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch long piece fresh ginger, minced
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
½ tbsp coriander seeds
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
4 cups crushed tomatoes
1 lb of boneless, skinless chicken (thighs or breasts), cut into chunks
1 cup heavy whipping cream or coconut cream
Garam masala, from the recipe above
2 teaspoons dried fenugreek leaves (optional)

Heat a tablespoon of both butter and vegetable oil in a large skillet.  Add the onions and a sprinkle of salt and cook the onions on low. Cook until they caramelize into a deep brown, stirring occasionally (should take about 15 minutes – this step is really important to get the best flavor).

Turn up the heat to medium and add the garlic, ginger, and bell pepper and fry for a minute.

Push everything to the side of the pot and add a little drizzle of oil in the empty space. Add the whole spices into the oil and fry them until fragrant. Add the paprika, and mix everything together.

Pour in the tomatoes and a pinch of salt and bring to a low simmer, cooking for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is very thick.

Nestle the chicken pieces in the tomato sauce and cook for about 5 minutes, or enough to cook the chicken pieces.

Stir in the cream, all of the garam masala, and fenugreek leaves (if using).  Check for seasoning, adding more salt if necessary. Serve at once with rice and naan!


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