Chicken Tikka Masala and Dr. Who

So, here’s the deal:

I don’t get the whole St. Patrick’s Day thing. I’m barely Irish (I have a couple of Irishmen in the family tree here and there, but not enough to count as Irish), and I’m certainly not Catholic, and I really don’t like the idea of drinking beer with food coloring in it.

And, really, I don’t much care for most Irish food.

Canned corned beef made into hash is a nightmare from my childhood.

I am not so much into cooked cabbage, so there goes colcannon right there.

So what are we doing at our house while everyone else is out celebrating being Irish? Who are we going to celebrate tonight at supper if not St. Patrick?

Who, indeed.

Tonight is the US premier of the new Dr. Who series, and we are celebrating by having traditional British food. So, instead of being St. Patrick’s Day at our house, it is Dr. Who Day, and we are feasting in honor of the last of the Time Lords.

Feasting on what?

Chicken tikka masala.

Well, yeah. It was declared the official dish of the UK back in 2002 by the foreign minister, so there. That makes it, like British.

So that is what we had. I gave the folks a choice between that and shepherd’s pie, and chicken tikka won.

Now, my recipe is a cheater’s version. You are supposed to use leftover tandoori chicken to make the dish, but since I had none of that lying about, I cheated and cooked the chicken in the sauce. (It is said that chicken tikka masala came about when a British diner was served tandoori chicken and demanded a gravy to go with it. I don’t think that was the case. I think it might have been a clever way to use untouched tandoori chicken by turning the leftovers into something else–something tasty. The chicken if reheated it as it was, would be dry–but with a sauce–well, it would be delicious.) It turns out fine that way. I also use less cream than most restaurants, mainly because I want to be able to eat the dish more than once a year. I also spice mine up a bit more than many places, but that is okay. It tastes good that way.

You will notice a certain similarity to this and chicken makhani–that is because I suspect that the sauce for chicken tikka masala is based on the sauce for chicken makhani. (If you clicked on that link above about chicken tikka masala being the most popular dish in the UK, and read the article, you will come across the opinion of Shekhar Naik, owner of the Ambassador of India restaurant in Glastonbury…he says that it is a variant of chicken makhani that was invented in a restaurant in New Dehli. This jibes also with what the waiter at Akbar told us years ago–he said it was his favorite dish and that there were restaurants in New Dehli that served it, and when he went home, he always ate it there.)

So, here is the recipe:

Spicy Chicken Tikka Masala


2 small, or one medium onion peeled, and roughly chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1 ½ inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
fresh red chili peppers to taste (1 or 2 small thin ones)
12 cardamom pods, seeds removed and ground
1 tsp. black peppercorns, ground
2 tbs. coriander seeds freshly ground
1 tbs. paprika
1 tbs. dried fenugreek leaves
1 tbs. butter or butter ghee
1 ½ cups water
1 14 ounce can crushed tomatoes
½ cup yogurt
2 tbs. butter or butter ghee
1 cup or less heavy cream
salt to taste
1 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1” pieces
handful fresh cilantro, chopped for garnish


In food processor or blender grind onions as fine as possible. A paste is preferable, but do it as fine as you can. (The Sumeet makes this much simpler.

Grind together garlic, ginger and chili peppers the same as the onions. Keep separate from onions.

Grind all dried spices together.

Heat first tablespoon butter or ghee in a deep frying pan, (nonstick is best) and add onions. Stir and fry until the onions begin to brown. Stir constantly. If they start to burn, add a tiny bit of water.

When onions are brown, add the garlic, ginger and hot pepper paste, and stir, frying for about three more minutes.

Add dried spices, and cook until mixture is very fragrant–a couple of minutes

Add water, and mix together into a sauce.

Add tomatoes, and stir together. Turn heat to low, and cook until your sauce has reduced by one half.

Stir yogurt until smooth, and add to simmering sauce, one tablespoon at a time. Whisk until sauce smooths.

Add butter or ghee, allow to melt, whisk until smooth.

Add cream, and salt to taste.

Add chicken pieces, and simmer on low until the chicken is done and just tender, probably around 8 minutes.

Stir in cilantro and serve.


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  1. Barbara – I have been hanging out here in the background, daily reading your entries and dying to try some of these recipes. I am still waiting for my sumeet wanting that first magical taste to come from using my new kitchen toy (probably more like a new workhorse) blending all these wonderful spices into a wonderful aromatic paste. The waiting is trying my patience.

    Comment by Maureen — March 18, 2006 #

  2. hmmmm…wish i could smell all the delish aromas while you were cooking it and ofcourse eat it too. :):)

    Comment by Santhi — March 18, 2006 #

  3. That looks wonderful, we’re going to have to try that soon!

    I’ve been enjoying your Indian food series. Do you take requests? I’m trying to get my 19-month-old to eat more greens, and I’d love to find a good recipe for saag paneer. I’m planning to try your saag aloo recipe soon. Any thoughts on substitutions for fennel? It gives me a headache. (I also don’t do well with cumin, but I find that coriander is an acceptable substitute.) Nothing like food sensitivities to complicate the joy of eating an ethnically diverse diet.

    Comment by Kristi — March 18, 2006 #

  4. We have a popular story that tells that chicken tikka masala was actually invented here, in Britain, in Birmingham, by an Indian chef. Birmingham is known for the great variety and great number of Indian restaurants. I’m off there overnight on Tuesday with a colleague from the US who loves Indian food, so I guess our dinner is sorted out… I’ll try and track down the story while I’m there 🙂

    There is a long tradition of Anglo-Indian food dating from the days of the Raj. Dishes like kedgeree and muligatawney (sp?) soup are hydrids from that era, as are British curry powders. I think curry powders – that is commercial mixes – were made popular in Britain by people returning from India with pre-mixed spice blends as they couldn’t live without the spices their Indian cooks used, but didn’t have the knowledge (and probably inclination) to cook for themselves Then someone had the idea of making them to sell commercially. The British love affair with Indian food is very longstanding, and I think our love of spices is older still. In the 14th century, the French often accused us of over-spicing our food 🙂 I’ve long suspected that it was the industrial revolution that made our food so bland…

    Comment by Stephanie — March 18, 2006 #

  5. Maureen–soon, soon. It will come soon, and you will love it. I promise.

    Santhi–you are welcome at my table anytime.

    Kristi–of course I will write about saag paneer. But first–do you want saag paneer or palak paneer. The names are used interchangably in US restaurants. Saag denotes any sort of greens, while palak specifically refers to spinach. So–do you want spinach or some other kind of greens with your paneer? (I like it either way.)

    As for the fennel–use some cardamom instead. It will give a similar sweetness to the dish. Use less cardamom as it is stronger–I would use the seeds from 3-5 cardamom pods.

    Stephanie–I am reading a book called Spice, which is telling me much about the love affair with spices over all of Europe. I don’t know quite when spices went out of favor, but I weep for that day. I grew up eating fairly bland food (much of it British in origin), and I much prefer the very flavorful foods from India, China, Mexico, the Caribbean and Africa to most typical bland “American food.” (Though the foods of Louisiana and the Southwest are -not- bland and are among my favorite regional cuisines of the US.)

    Curry powders did come from the Raj period–as did Worchestershire sauce! It has its roots in India, too. The book, Curry, by Lizzie Collingham, goes into a lot of the history of how Indian food influenced British food during the period of the Raj and later–and that is what I found so fascinating about it. Not only did Indian food influence British food, which I tangentially knew about, but it also spread across the globe, as the Brits used particularly South Indians as a cheap labor force in other colonies.

    Colonialism is a sad state of affairs, and I don’t endorse imperialism of any sort but, culinary riches came of it the colonial and exploration periods.

    So, there is a silver lining to every cloud.

    But, do tell me–what about the Industrial Revolution made British food bland?

    Comment by Barbara — March 18, 2006 #

  6. I had no idea about Worcester sauce – that’s fascinating. I think I’m going to have to read “Curry” 🙂

    The movement of foods and taste is a silver lining in imperialism, I agree. I find it really interesting and heartening how food tends to move like water through barriers of class and race and just being people together.

    The Industrial Revolution… hmmm… well… this is a bit of a pet theory I’m working on right now. Coming from Manchester where the damned thing was born, and coming from a line of people that were the cannon fodder it’s kind of always there in the background…

    I think it ties in with your recent post on women and food when working outside the home. My grandmother worked fulltime, as did my great graandmothers, which would take us back to the late 1800s. Money and time were both tight. People in a similar bottom-of-the-pile situation in most of the rest of Europe at that time still produced their own food, but in the grim North of England, a city-dweller of the lower classes would have no means of food production. They were sitting ducks for any cheap food that was filling and could be made with little effort. You mention corned beef hash which I think is typical – the corned beef was cheap, tinned food (and the thought of pushing it round and round the plates of my childhood still makes me shudder!). Spices, herbs, and the time to use these flavourings and learn to cook well were pretty impossible for people in those conditions. And I think people in general got severed from the land, too, in the new cities.

    You can see traces of the old spiced recipes in traditional sausages (pepper, mace, cloves), pork pies and some of the older offal and game dishes, I think, survivors from the medieval period that slipped through.

    These to me seem like a different culinary tradition to corned beef hash, hotpot (shudder) and manufactered “meat” pies, and the ultimate northern lunch of chips (fries) in a sandwich — yup, that’s a whole pile of carbs slapped between two thick sliices of pure carbs, with only salt and vinegar to wake it up 🙂
    But it is cheap and filling (and good when your in the right mood!) — although a million miles away from the older type of food like spiced mutton pies… Not sure if this all hangs together as an argument or explanation as I am only just starting to look into it, and this is a first swipe 🙂

    Oh – and if anyone from the US without an English background is reading, be warned that corned beef in the UK bears no resemblance to the Jewish deli treat you know. Trust me on this. Never, ever, ever order a corned beef sandwich in an English pub 😉

    Comment by Stephanie — March 18, 2006 #

  7. I was always under the impression that the Puritan Revolution was a major factor in the blandness of modern English cuisine. Spicy and rich foods were banned, along with Christmas celebrations and holy feasts during that time. I recollect many foods were much spicier in, say, Henry VIII’s time.

    In many ways, English cuisine does not appear to have changed much from the 17th century – other than the Indian influence during the Imperial era.

    The industrial revolution likely had an influence, but I believe English food was generally bland to begin with by that time. Mass food production and the resultant homogenization of cuisine seems to me to be primarily a very late 19th and 20th century process.

    Comment by Dan Jenkins — March 18, 2006 #

  8. Great call on the curry, it looked fab! Will certainly give your recipe a try.

    Hope you enjoyed Dr Who, we are awaiting the airing of next series in the UK on 15th April!!!

    Love your site!

    Comment by Pamela — March 19, 2006 #

  9. I love reading your posts and this one has been no exception. How clever to put your own stamp on St Patick’s day celebration.

    Comment by valentina — March 19, 2006 #

  10. I had no idea that the new Dr. Who was on. Thank you, thank you, thank you for putting me on to this. It reruns tomorrow and we’re all set. And thanks for a wonderful recipe to celebrate.

    Comment by Lynn D. — March 19, 2006 #

  11. Stephanie, Dan–I think you both have part of the puzzle as to what happened to British food to make it so bland. I had forgotten about the stricter sumptuary laws of the Puritan era, Dan–thank you for reminding me. (When it comes to English history, I know more about the Middle Ages, and earlier, and from the 19th Century on, with some spotty knowledge on the 18th century.

    I do think that the Industrial Revolution, because it put everyone to work in poor families, probably did have something to do with it as well. It certainly has to do with the rise of prepared and convience foods as a part of English food traditions.

    Thank you, Pamela. One thing about the Chicken Tikka Masala–if you make the sauce the night before, and heat it up the next day and cook the chicken in it–it is even better. We had leftovers of the chicken tikka last night and they were fabulous–the flavors of Indian food always settle if you let them sit overnight and really mesh together into a delicious mixture of goodness.

    Glad you like the site! David Tenet looks like he will be a good Dr. Who, too–I saw “The Christmas Invasian, and look forward to seeing more of him soon.” (Bit torrent is our friend….)

    It was luck this year, Valentina–next year, I will have to think of something else to celebrate on St. Patrick’s Day.

    Wish me luck on that!

    Lynn–you are ever so welcome. Enjoy! The next episode is a great deal of fun. Spooky, and serious, but with little touches of humor here and there.

    Comment by Barbara — March 19, 2006 #

  12. Dan, just to add my thanks for talkig about the Puritan era. I know way too much about the early and high medieval period and very little of that time, so it tends to fall off my time map.

    Comment by Stephanie — March 19, 2006 #

  13. Hi, Barbara!

    Many thanks for the cardamom tip, I’m looking forward to trying that!

    I think palak paneer is what I’m looking for. I always thought “saag” translated as “spinach.” I’m always interested in trying other greens, but spinach is an important standard around our house.

    Comment by Kristi — March 19, 2006 #

  14. If I wasn’t reading Sam Pepys’ blog (, the Puritan influence might not have come to mind. It was something I had read of some years ago, but it came to mind from Sam’s regular entries on his meals back in 1662.

    Glad I was able to provide some input. I agree that the Industrial Revolution, and the consequent migration to the cities, radically changed food production and the diet. Between that, and the Puritans, English cuisine never recovered. 🙂

    As Somerset Maugham said, “To eat well in England, you should have a breakfast three times a day.”

    Otherwise, it’s bubble & squeak, maybe with some spotted dick. I lived in London for half a year once. Tried to eat my way through many different English foods during the day. To compensate, I ate my way through the Indian restaurants at night.

    Comment by Dan Jenkins — March 19, 2006 #

  15. Has anyone seen the UK comedy series ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ that was out a few years ago? It was Indian-English comdians, and they had a running joke of getting very drunk and going to an English restaurant where they dared each other to eat the blandest food on the menu 😀

    Comment by Stephanie — March 20, 2006 #

  16. […] started with this recipe from Tigers & Strawberries, and now I know to try more of her recipes in the […]

    Pingback by Chicken Tikka Masala | — November 29, 2010 #

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