Chicken tikka masala or butter chicken

The origin of this dish is heavily disputed. According to legend, a customer ordered chicken tikka in an Indian restaurant in Scotland and sent it back, complaining it was too dry. The Bangladeshi chef improvised with ingredients on hand: a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, yogurt, cream, and spices.

Evan Joshua /Courtesy of Pickles and Tea
Chicken Tikka Masala is given a modern makeover in this contemporary presentation.

Every once in awhile – and particularly when it’s cold and grey out – I’ll yearn for the stodgy British staples I learned to love during our stay in England:  toad-in-the-hole, bamgers and mash, pork pie, and … chicken tikka masala.

It was only after living in England for a few months that I realized chicken tikka masala wasn’t an authentic Indian dish. I should’ve known. It didn’t seem quite right to be able to order a curry dish at the neighborhood pub and wash down desi flavors with a pint.

Truth be told, chicken tikka masala is a crowd favorite in the British Isles. The dish is included in BBC’s 2003 publication "Recipes for the Nation’s Favorite Food – Britain’s Top 100 dishes." More recently, a 2012 survey carried out by The Food Network UK ranked it the country’s second most popular international dish, after Chinese stir-fry.  

In 2001, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook declared  that “Chicken Tikka Masala is now a true British 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.” (See excerpts reported in The Guardian).

Chicken tikka masala can be broken down into two parts: the chicken tikka part – bite-sized pieces of boneless chicken marinated in yogurt and spices then skewered and baked in a tandoor or clay oven (a.k.a.tandoori chicken kabob); and the masala (mixed spices) sauce that was added to satisfy every Briton’s desire to devour meats smothered in gravy.

The origin of this dish is heavily disputed. A popular tale is that it originated in an Indian restaurant in Glasgow, Scotland. According to legend, a customer ordered chicken tikka and sent it back, complaining it was too dry. The Bangladeshi chef in the kitchen decided to improvise with ingredients on hand, namely a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, yogurt, cream, and spices. Et voila, chicken tikka masala was born.

I’m more inclined to think that the ancestral dish from whence chicken tikka masala grew is butter chicken, or murgh makhani, which is famous, and delicious, in its own right.

Flipping through Madhur Jaffrey’s "Indian Cooking" (Barron’s, 1982), I discovered a recipe for chicken in butter sauce and it looked very much like a chicken tikka masala recipe to me. Ms. Jaffrey describes this dish as “tandoori chicken … transformed with a sauce.” Sound familiar?

Food writer and novelist Monica Bhide has also waxed lyrical about her dad’s butter chicken many times in print. In fact, Ms. Bhide  spotlights butter chicken in her new novel "Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken" and even features the recipe in a companion cookbook. Below, an excerpt from her essay for NPR hints at butter chicken’s provenance.

“This is the real butter chicken,” (Dad would) say. “I can tell you it tastes like the one from Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi. Did I ever tell you that is where this dish originated? I will take you there when we are in Delhi next.”

Since its debut at the Moti Mahal in 1948, butter chicken has spread worldwide like dandelion seeds in gale-force winds, touching down in the United Kingdom probably sometime in the late 1950s.

Surprisingly – or not – no two chicken tikka masala recipes are alike. Chefs across the country, taking into account local/regional tastes, put their own twists on the original Moti Mahal recipe and butter chicken evolved into what is now known as chicken tikka masala. 

Yes, both recipes share key ingredients and cooking methods, but this time, I decided to go with the “mother” recipe, butter chicken. The result – a flavorful dish that even my 6-year-old enjoyed!

This is Monica's adaptation of her father's fabulous dish. Serve this with hot steamed rice, or rice and peas, or Indian breads such as naan. Next time, I might try frying the chicken in the skillet instead of roasting to shorten cooking time. While the "tandoori" or oven roasted flavor is elemental to this dish, the shortened cooking time (and think fewer dishes to wash!) makes it worth it on a week night!

Butter chicken
By Monica Bhide
Serves 4

For the chicken:
1 cup whole-milk Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon peeled, grated ginger
1 tablespoon peeled, minced garlic
2 tablespoons Indian tandoori masala*
1/4 cup canned tomato puree*
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons melted butter or ghee
8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs cut into small pieces
Salt, to taste

1. In a large bowl, mix together the yogurt, ginger, garlic, Indian tandoori masala, tomato puree, salt, lemon juice and butter. Add the chicken and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour.

2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the chicken in a single layer in a roasting pan. Pour all remaining marinade over the chicken. Roast 20 to 30 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked and the juices run clear.3. Remove the chicken from the oven and place all the pieces on a platter. Reserve the cooked marinade in a bowl.

For the sauce:
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon peeled, grated ginger
1 tablespoon peeled, mild garlic
2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
Salt, to taste
1 serrano chile, finely minced
1 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves
1/2 cup heavy cream

1. To make the sauce, in a large skillet, heat the butter over medium heat. Add the ginger and garlic. Saute for about 30 seconds.2. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring constantly. Use the back of a spatula to mash the tomatoes as you go. Continue until the tomatoes are completely mashed and soft, about 10 minutes.3. Add the reserved marinade.4. Add the salt, chili pepper, and chicken and mix well. Simmer covered for about 10 minutes.5. Add the cream and simmer for another minute. Serve hot.Notes: Monica recommends Shan Tandoori/Tikka mix. But I just made my own using the recipe below. Instead of tomato puree, I used a mixture of 1/4 cup strained crushed tomatoes (passata) and 1 tablespoon tomato paste.Tandoori mix2 tablespoons ground coriander
1-1/2 tablespoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground mace
1 teaspoon ground fenugreek
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmegMix all ingredients together in a bowl and store in an airtight container.

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