Chicken tikka masala was the very first curry I ever loved—a go-to dinner while studying in Europe without a clue in the world how to cook anything. At least twice a week I'd brown some chicken pieces, dump in a jar of spicy tikka masala sauce, and serve the whole lot over boiled rice. Great times, but you can never go home again. Now that I know how to cook, I can't bring myself to eat dinner from a jar (and I've since learned that what I was eating was really a sort of Anglified dish with lots of sauce because Brits like their meat with "gravy"). Most of the curries I make these days are vegetarian and a little more authentic, but my days of tikka masala recently returned in the form of an insatiable craving. Unable to resist, I set out to find a recipe.
Most recipes call for overnight marinades for the meat, but I wanted it to be a quick dinner that would work for this column. Based on a recipe I found at About.com (an article about British food!) along with elements of a few others, I pulled together this 45-minute version that's a good shortcut. While the chicken is marinating, no time is wasted: meanwhile, onions and ginger caramelize slowly with spices until falling apart (this stage is a key to the deep flavor of many curries). I traded the more common heavy cream for yogurt, adding a little flour to keep it from curdling, with tomato paste for flavor and lemon for tartness. The result is a very classic "curry" taste. Better than the jar, for sure.
- 4 skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
- 1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped
- 1 lemon
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 red onion, roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon garam masala or other curry powder
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 10 ounces light cream, or 3/4 cup plain yogurt plus 1 teaspoon flour
- 2 teaspoons tomato paste
Into a large bowl, grate half the ginger, and zest the lemon. Then add the garlic, cilantro, 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil, half the lemon's juice, a tablespoon of yogurt, salt, and pepper. Stir, add chicken to bowl, and set aside to marinate.
While the meat is marinating, heat the remaining oil in a heavy, large skillet over low heat. Roughly chop the remaining ginger and add it to the oil with the onion. Cook gently for 10-15 minutes until falling apart and caramelized. Add the spices and stir well to combine. Cook for an additional 2-3 minutes to marry the flavors. Season with a good pinch of salt, then scrape into a bowl and reserve.
Increase the heat to medium-high and add the chicken pieces. Cook, turning occasionally, until brown and cooked through, but still tender. Return the onion mixture to the skillet, and add the cream if using, or the flour then yogurt. Stir in the tomato paste and simmer for 5 minutes.
Check for seasoning, adding salt or lemon juice as needed. Serve with basmati rice or naan.