Making a Memory: Chicken Tikka Masala

27 May

The summer I lived in England 13 years ago was uncharacteristically hot. Most days were in the 90s and sunny, but near the end of my trip were a few of the cloudy, rainy days I was told to expect. Because of the weather, we’d been consuming a lot of pretty light food, but one cooler night a group of us went out to eat and I found myself wanting something heartier.

One dish that appeared nearly everywhere was chicken tikka masala, a curry described by former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in 2001 as “a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because 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.”

At the time, I was pretty unfamiliar with Indian food (or dishes of Indian origin) and wasn’t sure what to expect from the spices of that region. My tomato sauces at home were full of garlic, basil, and oregano, sometimes with the additions of sausage or meatballs. This was a different kind of tomato sauce altogether, with a palette full of aromatics and spices to flavor the juicy chicken simmering therein.

I was hooked by the smell first, like breathing in a warm, spicy hug. And I mean spicy in an aromatic sense, not heat. There were so many different smells to catch and yet somehow they came together in harmony. The curry sauce was flavorful, rich, and creamy, and the chicken breast juicy and succulent. It was a perfect stew for a cool night, perfect alongside soft and warm naan bread to sop up every drop of the sauce.

Chicken Tikka Masala

  • 2 lbs. boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into 2 in. pieces
  • 2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 tsp. garam masala
  • 2 tsp. cumin
  • 1 tsp. turmeric
  • 1 tsp. coriander
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • ½ tsp. black pepper
  • ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. cardamom
  • 1 cup plain yogurt (I used nonfat, but any fat content works)
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp. fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 cup crushed tomatoes
  • ½ cup chicken stock or broth
  • 1 14 oz. can light coconut milk
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a small bowl, combine the yogurt and spices and mix well.

Place the chicken in a nonreactive container or zip-top plastic bag, pour on the yogurt, and mix well. Let the chicken marinate in the spiced yogurt for 2-4 hours in the refrigerator.

Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat and brown the chicken 2-3 minutes per side.

Remove the chicken to a plate, deglaze the pan with a splash of chicken stock, scrape the brown bits off the bottom of the pan, and pour that onto the chicken. Return the pan to the stove and reduce the heat to medium-low.

Pour in a little bit more olive oil, add the onion and saute 3-4 minutes, or until soft.

Add the tomato paste and cook for another 2-3 minutes.

Stir in garlic and ginger.

Deglaze the pan with the crushed tomatoes. Add the coconut milk and broth, and bring the curry to a gentle simmer.

Add the chicken and simmer for 15-20 minutes or until thickened to your desired consistency.

Serve over rice or with warm naan to soak up all of the wonderful sauce.

Over the years this has remained one of my favorite curries to make. For me it’s not just seeking to recreate a dish, but a feeling and a moment in time. When I taste this I am instantly transported to that sweet summer night surrounded by laughter and good company, and feel the comfort that comes from that. And it helps that it tastes absolutely delicious.

Ciao for now,


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