Chicken tikka masala—grilled boneless chicken in a spiced, creamy tomato sauce—is the quintessential Anglo-Indian comfort dish (read about the speculation swirling around its origins, and its similarity to the dish known as butter chicken, here). For our version we reached out to Indian-American chef Preeti Mistry of Juhu Beach Club, a modern Indian restaurant in Oakland, California—Preeti is one of our Kitchen Coaches. At her restaurant, chicken tikka masala is on the kids’ menu, a testament to how approachable and easy to love this dish is, two factors that also make it a great threshold recipe for Indian-cooking novices.
What to buy: For marinating the chicken, Preeti uses extra-tangy Greek yogurt from Straus Family Creamery. If using another brand, up the acidity by adding a teaspoon of lemon juice to the yogurt in the marinade.
You can use a commercial garam masala spice blend for this recipe, but Preeti strongly suggests making your own, using black cardamom pods (these are smoked over charcoal, so they have an earthy, smoky flavor—if using a garam masala blend, up the smoke and spice by adding 1/2 teaspoon each smoked paprika and cayenne pepper). Check out other spice-buying tips from Preeti.
- 1Remove the tenders from the chicken breasts and cut off the thinner triangular bottom pieces. Split the remaining thick ends in half. You should end up with about 8 pieces, 1/4 to 1/3 inch in thickness. Toss in a bowl with the salt and lemon juice. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 3 hours.
- 2Make the marinade by combining all the remaining ingredients in a medium bowl. Use a whisk or immersion blender to mix well.
- 3Drain the chicken (discard the lemon juice) and add it to the yogurt marinade, coating the pieces well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or as long as overnight.
For the sauce:
- 1Toast and grind the spices: Combine the cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, green cardamom pods, and black cardamom pod (if using) in a small saucepan. Toast over medium heat, tossing or stirring occasionally, until the spices are fragrant and hot, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder and process until fine. Transfer to a small bowl and add the smoked paprika (if using in place of the black cardamom).
- 2Melt the butter in a heavy 1-1/2-quart saucepan over medium heat. When it starts to bubble, add the ground spices and cook for 1 minute. Add the ginger, garlic, and salt and cook until the butter foams again, about 1 minute. Reduce the heat to medium low and add the tomato paste, using a small whisk to blend it into the butter mixture. Add the water in 2 additions, whisking until smooth. Simmer until the mixture is a pale brick red, about 3 minutes.
- 3Whisk in the cream and simmer until shiny and the volume of the sauce has reduced by a quarter, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
- 1To cook the chicken, heat a grill pan over medium-high heat and lightly brush it with vegetable oil. Remove the chicken from the marinade, let any excess drip off, and place the pieces in the grill pan (you will probably have to do this in batches). Cook until the chicken has dark grill marks and the juices run clear, about 6 minutes on the first side and about 3 minutes on the second. Remove to a platter until all the pieces are cooked and cool enough to handle.
- 2Bring the sauce back to a simmer over medium-low heat. Cut the chicken into 3/4-inch squares and add it to the sauce, along with any juices from the platter. Simmer until the sauce is shiny and has thickened slightly, about 5 minutes. Serve with basmati rice.