India and Southeast Asia established the reputation as the “spice bowl” of the world in spice trade. Arab, English, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish traders, long ago, recognized this region for its use of premium quality spices.
Combined with the innuendoes of local influences from the Indian subcontinent to Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, and China (whew, just to name a few) the types of curries are seemingly endless when used in combination with local foods.
From my mortar and pestle, from my chopping block and finally from the hot stove, I created this Tikka Masala with Saag Paneer served with hot basmati rice. As a complement, mango chutney and a mint-cucumber raita accompanied the meal. A hot Naan bread rounded out the meal.
The following recipe for Indian Tikka Masala results from several hours of combining spices and aromatics, tasting and revising. It will probably continue to evolve. If in the making of this recipe you discover a problem or make an improvement, please let me know about it. There is always room for enhancements in recipes with long lists of ingredients such as this one.
Before you attempt this recipe, be warned that it is labor intensive. I’ve presented you with two options. The Garam Masala option is decidedly easier. It can be simpler if you buy the garam masala powder rather than grinding your own as I suggest.
If you are following the Tikka Masala option, I recommend that you prepare the Tikka Paste a day or so in advance. It will lighten your work load and allow you to move through this recipe with greater ease.
For those of you who are ambitious, begin the day by preparing the naan bread, chutney and raita in advance. The rice can cook while you make the Tikka Masala later in the day.
Tikka Masala – Tikka refers to boneless chunks of chicken. Masala is the sauce that is used to simmer the chicken.
Saag Paneer is Spinach combined with Paneer cheese cooked in a creamy yogurt sauce with aromatics, curry and chile. (Recipe will appear in a follow up post)
Raita is a yogurt-based condiment that can be flavored with a variety of chopped vegetables and seasoning intended to cool the palate. (Recipe will appear in a follow up post)
Mango chutney is a sweet relish to offset the heat of the chili and sour of the yogurt. Chutneys are always vegetarian and can be ground or slow cooked.
Indian Tikka Masala (Chicken in Fragrant Sauce)
2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts, cubed into bite sized pieces
4 tsp. Garam Masala* (most homecooks choose this version)
(See my recipes below. For a very spicy version, substitute 6 tablespoons Tikka Paste.)
1 heaping tablespoon ground turmeric
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 3” piece ginger, peeled and chopped
1 Serrano chile, stemmed, seeded and chopped
(If you want to add a lot of heat, leave the seeds in. If you want less heat, use a Jalapeno chile. If you prefer a mild sauce, leave out the chile entirely)
1 lb. whole peeled tomatoes, pureed
or 2 cups whole canned tomatoes, undrained and pureed
1/3 cup Greek yogurt (Fage is a great brand)
(The yogurt must be thick not the watery types like the
Dannon or Yoplait brands.)
Sea salt or Kosher salt, to taste
6 tablespoon Ghee or melted unsalted butter
1 ½ tsp. coriander
½ tsp. cumin or cumin seeds
½ tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp. fenugreek
1 tablespoon hot paprika
1 tablespoon ground almonds
1 large onion or 2 medium onions, chopped
1 cup heavy cream
Cilantro leaves for garnish
Extra yogurt for garnishing or Raita
Before you begin, choose to proceed using either the Tikka Paste OR the Garam Masala Paste.
For the Garam Masala version, make the masala paste:
In a blender, puree turmeric, garlic, ginger, Serrano pepper, 2 tsp. garam masala and ½ cup water. Put the paste in a bowl and set aside.
If you chose to make the Tikka Paste version, begin here:
In the same blender, puree the tomatoes. I put them through a food mill to remove seeds but you can use a strainer or sieve if you don’t have a food mill.
Next, in a medium sized bowl, mix 2 teaspoons of the masala paste or 3 tablespoons of tikka paste with the chicken pieces, yogurt and salt. Marinate the mixture for at least 20-30 minutes. While it’s marinating heat the oven to broil.
For broiling or grilling the chicken pieces:
Line a baking sheet with tin foil (if you want to save on clean up) or just use the baking sheet but coat it lightly with oil first. Place the chicken pieces on the baking sheet so that they are not touching one another. Broil them until cooked, about 6-8 minutes depending on your oven, turning the pieces halfway through. When they finish, set them aside to cool.
Meanwhile, heat the ghee (or butter) in a 4-6 quart pan over medium high heat. Add the coriander, cumin, mustard seeds and fenugreek. Toast the spices until aromatic, about 5-6 minutes.
When the spices heat up, add the onions and paprika to the pan. Cook until the onions soften, about 5-8 minutes depending on the stove and the size of your dice. When the onions are softened and translucent, add the remaining masala paste (or tikka paste). Brown the entire mixture for 6-9 minutes.
Add the pureed tomatoes, 1 cup of water and ground almonds and continue to cook until combined. Simmer the sauce for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Finally, stir in the cream. Bring the mixture to a boil but do NOT boil the sauce. Reduce the heat immediately and simmer another 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally. The mixture should begin to thicken.
Add the chicken and season with salt to taste. I use salt sparingly. When heated through, serve with rice, side dishes and condiments.
*My Garam Masala
Keep in mind that Garam means hot and Masala means spices. While there is no set recipe for garam masala there are accepted mixtures that work well. There are probably as many recipes as there are cooks though!
Garam Masala is typically used for meats but can be used for poultry and rice too. It is generally considered too strong to use for vegetable or fish dishes.
The one I use is the one I’ve developed over time. Feel free to make your own or use a high-quality store-bought mixture. Just be sure it’s fresh because the packaged mixtures may sit on the shelves a bit too long to impart the desired aromas and flavors. The shelf life for fresh flavor and pungency is under 6 months.)
Makes about ¼ cup
10 dried red chilies
3- 1” pieces of cinnamon stick
2 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon black cumin seeds (or regular cumin seeds)
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/4 of a nutmeg nut
¼ teaspoon chili powder
Dry roast the chilies and cinnamon sticks over low heat for about 2 minutes. You will begin to smell a fragrant aroma. Add the coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, black cumin seeds, cloves, black peppercorns, black mustard seeds and nutmeg and dry roast the mixture for 8-10 minutes. Keep shaking the pan to prevent the mixture from sticking or burning. This also keeps it evenly browning. The spices will begin to darken in color and you will begin to smell a strong, fragrant aroma. That means it’s ready to cool. Set it aside.
When the mixture has cooled, grind the spices using either a mortar and pestle or a spice mill (a coffee grinder works but you have to really clean it well when you finish). Grind until you have a fine powder.
Put the powder into a bowl and mix in the chili powder. Now, you have your own Garam Masala. Take notes and develop your own mixture over time.
It is best to keep the garam masala in a glass, airtight container in a dark, cool place.
*My Tikka Paste
Tikka paste has a slightly sour flavor and is used mostly for poultry dishes. It is used sparingly because it is a strong flavor. It’s also labor intensive so make it in advance. I received this recipe from one of my teachers. I liked it so much that I haven’t changed it. This recipe yields about 2 cups.
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 ½ tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons hot paprika
1 tablespoon garam Masala
1 tablespoon ground ginger
3 teaspoons chili powder
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon dried mint
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2/3 cup wine vinegar
2 tablespoons water
2/3 cup vegetable oil
Grind the seeds then add the remaining spices, mint and salt. Stir the mixture until it’s well blended. Mix in the lemon juice and wine vinegar. Add 2 tablespoons of water to form the mixture into a thin paste.
Heat the oil in a large pan or wok. Stir fry the paste, being very careful to avoid splatters, until all the water is absorbed, about 10 minutes. When all the oil rises to the surface of the paste, the paste is cooked.
Always allow hot pastes to cool before storage.