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There’s nothing quite like tikki masala. We’ve made no secret of our lifelong desire to master the Anglo-Indian dish chicken tikka masala — and luckily, Indian-American chef Preeti Mistry was awesome enough to give us the low-down.
Mistry was born in the U.K., grew up in the Midwest, appeared on Season 6 of “Top Chef,” and owned Juhu Beach Club in Oakland, California where the menu of modern Indian food was equal parts simple, gutsy, and refined. Though the restaurant closed in January 2018, you can (and should) still get a copy of The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook. In the meantime, you can get Mistry’s dynamite chicken tikka masala recipe right here.
“It’s traditional curry-house fare,” according to Mistry. “It hits that comfort-food spot.”
The quintessential Anglo-Indian comfort dish, chicken tikka masala is a dish of chicken in a creamy, tomato-accented gravy that’s highly spiced without being spicy, deeply savory, and just plain delicious. It’s also very similar to another favorite, butter chicken (or chicken makhani); the latter is a Northern Indian dish that tends to be milder and sweeter, with a creamier, richer consistency (and actual butter in the sauce), while tikka masala has a more acidic and complex flavor.
Mistry told us they used chicken tikka masala and butter chicken interchangeably: “The dishes are quite similar. They involve chicken marinated in yogurt and grilled or roasted, served simmered in a creamy tomato sauce. Often chicken tikka has less butter and is spicier than butter chicken—we call ours butter chicken mainly because it’s on our kids’ menu, and that name appeals to parents and kids. But really, there are so many different variations and recipes that it’s hard to say the dishes are so drastically different.”
Mistry was clear on one crucial point: It’s a dish that’s easy to master.
You’ll begin by marinating boneless, skinless chicken breasts in lemon juice and yogurt, before grilling and briefly simmering the bite-size pieces in a rich sauce of cream and tomato with Indian spices.
But Mistry also shared four key tips for making the best chicken tikka masala ever:
Tip #1: Marinating Is for More Than Flavor
In Mistry’s chicken tikka masala recipe, there are two separate marinating steps for the chicken: first with lemon juice and salt, and next with yogurt, oil, and spices. “That happens a lot in Indian cuisine,” Mistry said about the double marinating. “You want to give the chicken flavor, but mostly you want to change the texture, letting the fibers relax and get supertender.”
Ergo, don’t try to skip the marinating steps; the first one will take at least 30 minutes but can also go as long as three hours, while the second marinade should be at least three hours and up to overnight.
We like to make the yogurt marinade, then scrape it into a large zip-top bag before adding the chicken. That way there’s one less bowl to clean, and you can easily flip the chicken over halfway through the process so the marinade evenly coats everything.
Bonus tip: Mistry recommends an extra-tangy Greek yogurt like the one from Straus Family Creamery. If using another brand that’s not as tart, up the acidity by adding a teaspoon of lemon juice to the yogurt in the marinade.
Tip #2: Experiment with Different Cuts
At Juhu Beach Club, chicken tikka masala was on the kids’ menu (under the name butter chicken, as previously discussed), which was one reason why Mistry made it with chicken breasts. If you’re cooking for more adventurous eaters, try another part of the chicken with more flavor: legs. “If I were cooking this for grownups,” Mistry told us, “I’d probably use chicken thighs and leave them whole.
Tip #3: Keep It Fresh
You can make the yogurt marinade and the sauce a day or two ahead, but don’t even think of taking any shortcuts with the fresh ginger and garlic for either—peel and chop them right before using. “Garlic really loses its joy once it’s been chopped or blitzed in the food processor,” Mistry said.
Tip #4: Get Toasted
Whole spices should be lightly toasted before grinding—the heat brings out the spices’ natural oils, making all the flavors fragrant and bright. You can toast spices lightly in a dry skillet or spread out on a baking sheet in the oven; just keep a careful eye on them so they don’t brown or even scorch (they start to taste bitter when that happens). To cool the spices down immediately once they’re at the right degree of toasty, Mistry suggests you keep a cool metal bowl nearby; toss the spices in, and once cool, grind them in a spice mill.
See Mistry’s Garam Masala recipe for more pointers on that front (plus, what additions to make if you use a store-bought spice blend). Then, get cooking!