Chicken tikka masala sounds so good in theory. It’s everything I love about Italian food – carbs and meat and tomato sauce mixed together – but it’s Indian food, which I also love. Except, the first time I made it, the similarity was too strong. I felt like I was eating spaghetti sauce with weird spices over rice when it should have been pasta.
It took a couple years, but I finally got around to trying a new recipe. Maybe it’s the lemon juice in this recipe that makes all the difference, but there was no spaghetti confusion here. Marinara doesn’t usually have chili spices, ginger, and yogurt either.
There’s one thing about this recipe that will seem strange and might make you uncomfortable, and that is that the chicken is not cooked all the way through on the grill. A trip to the grill (or the broiler) is important to really brown, even char, the meat, but then it’s chopped so it can finish cooking in the sauce. This gives it time to soak up some flavor from the sauce without drying out.
It may be an unusual technique, but it works, because this is the best chicken tikka masala I’ve ever eaten. Of course, the only other chicken tikka masala I’ve eaten was the spaghetti one, so my basis for comparison is not large. Still, I know good when I taste it, and this is very good.
3 tablespoons ground cumin
3 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
12 cloves garlic, 8 smashed and 4 minced
3 tablespoons minced or grated fresh ginger, divided
2 cups yogurt
¾ cup fresh juice from 4 to 6 lemons, divided
5 pounds bone-in chicken pieces (breasts, legs, or a mix), skin removed
2 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, roughly chopped
½ cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 cup heavy cream
1. Heat a small not-nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the cumin, paprika, coriander, turmeric, and cayenne; toast, stirring constantly, until the spices begin to smoke. Immediately remove them from the pan so they don’t burn.
2. Combine 6 tablespoons of the spice mixture, 8 cloves smashed garlic, 2 tablespoons ginger, the yogurt, ½ cup lemon juice, and ¼ cup salt in a large bowl. Score the chicken at 1-inch intervals and immerse in the yogurt mixture; cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 8 hours, turning occasionally.
3. When the chicken has marinated, heat the butter in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until the foaming subsides. Add the onions, 4 cloves minced garlic, and the remaining 2 tablespoons ginger. Cooking, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to brown at the edges, about 8 minutes. Add the remaining spice mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Puree, either with an immersion blender or in batches with a regular blender. Stir in the cream and the remaining ¼ cup lemon juice. Season with salt if necessary; set aside.
4. Heat a grill to high heat. Grill the chicken without moving until charred, 5-7 minutes. Flip the chicken and char the second side. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and allow to rest for 10 minutes. The chicken should not be cooked through. (The chicken can also be broiled instead of grilled.)
5. Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces; transfer it to the sauce. Bring the sauce to a simmer over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently, until the chicken is just cooked through, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately with rice or naan, topping with the remaining cilantro.