Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Chicken Tikka Masala

"Where does our food come from?"  is a good question, and it rightfully gets asked and discussed pretty frequently.  The context I usually hear it in is when people want to consider their place in the vast, modern industrial food system; but today I was thinking about it in terms of the origins of specific cuisines.
I recently bought a tikka masala spice blend when I was at a great little spice shop in Bend, OR a couple weeks back.  I bought it for my parents because they, like me, love Indian food; my dad makes some pretty excellent curry, but I thought he might like to try a new line up of spices and flavors.  My dad also had a birthday coming up, and with his well-documented history of store-bought gift refusal it made for the perfect opportunity to use the new spices and cook him a birthday present he would really appreciate.  
When I told my co-workers about my dinner plans, our conversation casually turned to what the definitions of "tikka" and "masala" really are, and what it takes to define a dish as chicken tikka masala.  My curiosity piqued, I started to read a little bit about the origins of the ever-popular "Indian" dish....

Or was it really an Indian dish after all??  This is how ideas for blog posts come about, folks!

Some people might know chicken tikka masala (CTM) as "Britain's true national dish."  When I came across that phrase being used to describe CTM, I figured it had something to do with the old British/India trading routes; just like why a popular Western ale is known as India Pale Ale (British sailors used to pack their boats' beer supply with hops as a preservative for the long trip to India, which is why today's IPAs have that high hop content).  Maybe British traders tried CTM in India and were so enthralled that they brought it back to the home country and it just caught on?
However, I quickly learned that while "chicken tikka" is in fact an Indian cuisine ("tikka" refers to small chunks of meat), the popular dish with thick red sauce that we now know as chicken tikka masala is largely a British invention.  As the story goes, a British gent found his chicken tikka to be too dry and asked the chef to make a gravy to go with it; the chef proceeded to cook a can of tomato sauce and some yogurt in a bowl with some spices and served it to the patron as "tikka masala"("masala" refers to a mixture of spices).  A national treasure was born!
The dish became so popular that Foreign Secretary Robin Cook proclaimed it "Britain's true national dish," a demonstration of the multicultural palate and history of the empire!  


For chicken marinade:
4 boneless skinless chicken breast
2 cups plain greek yogurt
2 teaspoons tikka masala spice blend*

For sauce:
3 carrots
1 lbs. potatoes
1 jalapeno
4 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon tikka masala spice blend
2 teaspoons salt
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
1 cup heavy cream

Chop chicken into bite-sized chunks.  Add spice blend to yogurt and combine with chicken in bowl, let sit for at least 4 hours.  Stick chicken onto skewers and lay on a greased baking sheet.  Preheat oven to broil on high heat.  Broil chicken until slightly browned and juices run clear. 

Melt butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Saute garlic and jalapeno for 1 minute. Season with 2 teaspoons masala blend, paprika, and 3 teaspoons salt. Stir in tomato sauce and cream. Simmer on low heat until sauce thickens, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop carrots and potatoes and either steam or boil until they're just a little bit soft.  Combine carrots, potatoes and chicken into sauce and let simmer for 10-20 minutes.

Serve over rice, with a side of raita.  Raita is a traditional Indian side dish made with yogurt; it's a great thing to pair with spicy curries when your mouth needs cooling down.  I make mine by adding chopped cucumber and some salt and mustard seed powder to yogurt, and sprinkling some cayenne pepper over the top.

And nothing tops off a proper multicultural meal like a nice, cold IPA!

*While I simply used a jar of tikka masala spice mix, you can easily make your own.  Here is a standard mix of spices that you would find in CTM:
3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
3/4 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne

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