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Chicken Tikka Masala--a Classic British Dish?
by Victoria Challancin
I am always fascinated by food anthropology and the way ingredients and dishes find their way into other cultures. A perfect example of this is Chicken Tikka Masala (or Massala), which British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook declared in 2001 to be “a true 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 Massala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.”
There are so many stories, some no doubt apocryphal, of how this popular dish (often called the most popular restaurant dish in Britain) came to be. No doubt, marinated chunks of meat cooked in a traditional clay oven, is a dish that has been in existence in India for thousands of years, long before the British appeared on its shores in the 16th century. It is equally true that spicy dishes rich with cream, nuts, and/or spice pastes or blends have been in place for millennia in India. Whether or not the modern dish called Chicken Tikka Masala is a lovechild of these two traditions born in the 50s in British restaurants misses the point. The resulting dish of yogurt-marinated chunks of chicken bathed in a gentle (or spicy) creamy tomato sauce replete with spices is today a natural culinary treasure of Britain, no matter from whence it came.
The term “tikka” refers to small pieces of marinated meat, often on a skewer. “Masala” is the blend of spices ground into a paste or powder. Together they make Chicken Tikka Masala, a luscious blend of marinated chicken sauced with a tomatoey-creamy spice-rich sauce.
Class Notes: In this week's class for Mexican cooks, armed with some lovely fresh spices a loving friend just brought me from India, I chose a recipe from Food and Wine Magazine, by Grace Parisi, which I adapted only slightly. I can't find boneless chicken thighs here in San Miguel, so I just used thighs and legs with bones and a couple of boneless breasts cut into chunks. Not traditional, but still very good. I only had a couple of hours to marinate the chicken, but the marinade still imparted a heavenly flavor. We also started roasting the chicken in the oven, but then switched to a frying pan due to time constraints. I left the tomatoes in chunks, but a more authentic version would be to puree it first. Chef Parisi says that the marinade and sauce are also delicious with shrimp, lamb, and vegetables. And, no doubt, it is!
Recipe: Chicken Tikka Masala
1 cup plain low-fat yogurt
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs, fat trimmed (or see my personal notes)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/4 cup blanched whole almonds
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons garam masala (see my recipe below)
1 1/2 teaspoons pure chile powder (or to taste)
One 35-oz can peeled tomatoes, finely chopped, juices reserved
Pinch of sugar
1 cup heavy cream
Cilantro for garnish
In a large glass or stainless steel bowl, combine the yogurt, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cayenne, and turmeric. Season with salt and pepper. Using a sharp knife, make a few shallow slashes in each piece of chicken. Add the chicken to the marinade, turn to coat, and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat the broiler and position a rack about 8 inches from the heat. Remove the chicken from the marinade; scrape off as much of the marinade as possible. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and spread the pieces on a baking sheet. (Or just cook in a frying pan as we did in class). Broil the chicken, turing once or twice, until just cooked through and browned in spots, about 12 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and cut it into 2-inch pieces.
Meanwhile, in a small skillet, heat 1 teaspoon of the oil. Add the almonds and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until golden, about 5 minutes. Transfer the almonds to a plate and let cool completely. In a food processor, pulse the almonds until finely ground.
In a large enameled cast-iron casserole (or heavy Dutch oven), heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil until shimmering. Add the garlic and ginger and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until tender and golden, about 8 minutes. Add the garam masala, chile powder, and cayenne and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and their juices and the sugar and season with salt and pepper. Cover partially and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is slightly thickened, about 20 minutes. Add the cream and ground almonds and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 10 minutes longer. Stir in the chicken; simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, and serve. Garnish with chopped cilantro if desired.
My dear friend, Jennifer Haas, helped me out by snapping a few quick photos of various condiments with my point-and-shoot camera as I scurried around with my students, finishing the meal.
Thank you, Jennifer!
Spicy, pickled red onions Photograph by Jennifer Haas
Recipe: Garam Masala
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)
Note: I learned to make garam masala when I lived in the Middle East over twenty years ago. I have no idea the source of this particular mixture of spices.
Use whole spices when possible. Toast in a dry skillet and grind in a spice grinder.
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons cardamom seeds
1 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoons ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (preferably from a whole nutmeg)
1 cinnamon stick or 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Toast all whole spices in a dry skillet until fragrant, stirring constantly for about 1 minute. Grind in a
spice grinder in batches, if necessary. Place in a bowl and mix well. Store in a glass jar in a cool, dark
Cilantro-Mint Chutney with Yogurt Photograph by Jennifer Haas
Pear Chutney Photograph by Jennifer Haas
Raita with cucumbers, tomato, and toasted cumin seeds Photo by Jennifer Haas
©Victoria Challancin. All Rights Reserved.