If you’re an Indian food lover, you're probably familiar with chicken tikka masala, which appears on most Indian restaurant menus. This popular chicken dish with its creamy, aromatic tomato sauce originated in Delhi, India, in the middle of the last century. As the story goes, one evening, a tiny eatery that served Indian-style barbecued food (or tandoori) had some cream, butter, and tandoori chicken left over in the kitchen. Since there was no refrigeration at the eatery, the owner came up with a new dish to make use of those perishable leftovers. The rest is history. In India, the dish is known as chicken makhanwalla (“makhan” in Hindi means butter), but in Britain, this dish was renamed chicken tikka masala (“tikka” means “boneless,” and “masala” means “spices”).
Start by making a batch of good tandoori chicken
This chicken is marinated in yogurt, lemon juice, and spices, and then it’s traditionally cooked in a special clay oven called a “tandoor,” but I’ve found that roasting the chicken in a regular oven produces excellent results as well. I roast chicken thighs on the bone, which keeps the meat moist and gives it better flavor. When it’s cool, I pull off the meat in pieces— I never shred the meat, which can make it dry out.
Butter, cream, tomatoes, and spices transform tandoori chicken into chicken tikka masala.
First you sauté the roasted chicken pieces in butter, infusing them with flavor and slightly crisping the edges of the meat. Next, you create a rich, spiced tomato sauce in which you simmer the chicken so it can absorb more flavor. In this sauce, a few important spices come into play, and they should be as fresh as possible. If your paprika has been around longer than a year, it’s probably time to get a new jar. Garam masala is a mixture of several spices; it’s available in many supermarkets. For the cumin seeds, toasting and grinding takes only a few extra minutes and makes the difference between a good tikka masala and a phenomenal one.