Chicken tikka masala: the Indian hangover in Britain

DSC_0532I’ve heard that in ever-changing cosmopolitan London, Indian food is becoming more and more popular and acquiring a place next to the traditional English breakfast. But did you know that Dean Mahomet (probably born Deen Mohammad), an Indian soldier from the East India Company’s Bengal Regiment, established the oldest Indian restaurant in Britain (Hindostanee Coffee House) in 1809? Although it failed after two years, other people came up with restaurants like Veeraswamy’s, Koh-i-noor and Bombay Emporium to serve Indian food. Initially, the proprietors of these restaurants and cafes were mainly former Indian sailors settled in British ports. Often, these pioneering souls were poor and desperate, and tried to make a living by selling spices or working as servants, sweepers, hawkers or even street musicians.

DSC_0874 (3)In today’s London, you’ll find a Taj Mahal, Kohinoor or Curry House at every street corner serving “authentic Indian food”. However, as I’ve said many times before, fortunately or unfortunately, there is no one “Indian Food”. The size of the country is equivalent to Europe. The geographical variation is beyond description. The vast coastline, the massive mountain ranges, the myriad rivers have all contributed to a complex and varied cuisine. Eating habits are also determined by religion, caste and creed. North Indian Muslims eat Mughal-influenced food, the Parsees have developed a mixed cuisine combining their Persian and Indian heritage, the Bengali Hindus have a completely different cuisine than the Gujarati Hindus, the Jains will not eat anything which grows under the soil – the list of differences is endless. So, where did the British concept of “Indian cuisine” come from? If you look at the restaurants, they are mainly owned by either Punjabis (both Indian and Pakistani) or Bangladeshis who may or may not have been cooks in their native countries. At some point in the past, early Indian restaurateurs in the UK figured out high-selling combinations of Indian spices based on real-time feedback from the British public eating at their establishments, and these basic curries then spread like wildfire as being “Indian cuisine”. No matter where the chefs are from, the menu will always have a saag gosth, vindaloo and the British national dish Chicken Tikka Masala (fondly called CTM). CTM was invented in Glasgow but the origin of this dish has multiple urban legends. Except for the chicken, it has no mandatory ingredients and lacks a firm grounding in either the United Kingdom or India. Sort of like my husband, who has no roots – a British citizen born to Bengali parents from Assam who has lived in the USA for a decade. If you google CTM, there are hundreds of recipes with few common ingredients and the end result might vary largely.

My take on CTM is a mix-and-match of different recipes. I went with my instinct and it turned out to be very tasty. It’s a little too creamy and rich for my everyday tastes but who eats CTM everyday anyway. So, before you order your next CTM from a carryout place (probably loaded with orange food coloring and MSG), give this recipe a try. The real CTM might change for you forever.

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Recipe:

Ingredients:

For the tikkas:

Boneless chicken breasts (skins removed and cut into bite-sized pieces): 2-3 nos.

Plain yogurt: 2-3 tbsp.

Ginger-garlic paste: 2 tbsp. (if you grind it fresh and separate, then add 11/2 tbsp. of ginger paste and one tsp. garlic paste.)

Garam masala: Any kind/type: 1 tsp. (If you have tandoori masala handy, you can use that too)

Red chili powder: 2 tsp.

Turmeric: ½ tsp.

Salt to taste

Skewers (If you use wooden skewers, soak them in water for several minutes and then use them)

For the gravy:

Tomato: 1 big plum, juicy or 2 small ones. Make sure the tomatoes are ripe and juicy. Or else use canned tomato.

Onion: One medium, chopped very fine.

Ginger garlic paste: 2-3 tbsp.

Turmeric: a little less than one tsp.

Cumin powder: 2 tsp.

Coriander powder: 2 tsp.

Red chili powder/cayenne pepper: 2-3 tsp. (you can add more if you want. The cream will neutralize the heat, so you might have to add a little more to get the balance)

Kashmiri chili powder/Paprika: 2 tsp.

Heavy cream: 1/3 cup (you can adjust it according to your preference)

A handful of fresh cilantro/coriander leaves (optional)

Oil: 2 tbsp.

Salt to taste

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  • Put all the ingredients in a bowl for the tikkas and mix them well. You can add a little bit of oil too. Put them in a zip lock bag and let the meat marinate for several hours in the fridge (overnight will bring out the best flavors).
  • Het up the oven to its highest temp. I put it on broil (you can use your microwave grill too).
  • Take out the meat and let it come to room temperature. Thread them on the skewers. Do not overcrowd them.
  • Grill them for 5-7 minutes on each side or until the meat is cooked. I like them a little charred on the outside.
  • While the meat is in the oven, heat up the oil in a heavy bottom pot.
  • Add the onions and sauté them for a while. You do not have to brown them.
  • Add the ginger garlic paste, turmeric powder, red chili powder, Kashmiri chili powder and sauté them for 2-3 minutes.
  • Chop the tomato and add it to the spice paste. Add the cumin and coriander powder as well.
  • Cook the tomato-spice paste really well. Oil will start leaving the spice paste after a while and you will know that the spice is ready.
  • Add the cooked meat, coat them with the spice very well and then add luke warm water just enough to cover the meat.
  • Add the salt.
  • Let the whole thing come to a boil and then bring the flame to medium.
  • Reduce the sauce to your liking. Taste the seasoning.
  • Add the heavy cream and boil for few more minutes.

I like to have a clingy gravy. Remember, the next day the meat will absorb a bit of the gravy and thicken the sauce even more. I like to eat mine the next day as the meat absorbs the flavor and tastes better. If you cannot wait for a whole day, make it a few hours before and let it sit for a while.

  • Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve it with either white rice or naan and a salad.

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