Chicken tikka masala is actually a dish of British origin. In fact, it was proclaimed the national dish in a lengthy speech by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in 2001 as a tribute to the cultural diversity of Great Britain’s history and modern society (an amusing statement, given the infamous exploits of the British Empire and the East India Company). Nevertheless, chicken tikka masala is ubiquitous in Westernized Indian fast food, and while it may not have an ounce of authenticity, it is surely delicious and simple to prepare. Indian grocery stores carry bags of all of the necessary spices, and at prices orders of magnitude cheaper than typical grocery stores.
Similar to ricotta, paneer is a fresh cheese that is prepared by adding acidic lemon juice to hot, simmering milk to separate the curds from the whey. The curds are then drained, wrapped in cheesecloth, and pressed into a block, at which point it is pan-fried and cut into chunks that can be used to top off curries. Paneer is fairly easy to make at home and adds a savory, contrasting mouthfeel to the final dish.
PANEER + CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA.
Chicken Tikka Masala:
- 2 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs
- 1-2 cups unflavored yogurt
- 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- ½ cup heavy cream or coconut milk
- 3-4 tbsp garam masala (either pre-mixed, or hand-ground from whole toasted cinnamon, black peppercorns, star anise, cloves, cardamom, and nutmeg)
- 1-2 tbsp turmeric
- 1-2 tbsp paprika
- 1-2 tbsp cumin
- 1 tbsp white sugar
- 1 medium strip of ginger, minced
- 2-3 cloves of minced garlic
- 1 quart whole milk (do not purchase ultra-pasteurized milk, as the curds will not separate from the whey)
- 2-3 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp salt
While not necessary, the paneer should preferably be prepared the night before as the cheese will become firmer with an overnight refrigeration.
In either case, gently bring 1 quart of whole milk to a simmer, but not a boil, stirring occasionally to prevent scalding. When the milk begins to steam, take the pot off the heat and add 2-3 tbsp of lemon juice. Let the mixture stand for 10 minutes or until the curds are fully separated from the whey, which should turn yellow and watery – if not, add more lemon juice and wait longer.
Strain the curds in a mesh strainer lined with a cheesecloth and wring the cheesecloth to fully dry it out. Add 1-2 tbsp of salt, to taste, to the curds and shape them in a rectangular block. Use a heavy weight to compress them for at least 30 minutes or up to two days in the refrigerator.
Chicken Tikka Masala:
Prior to cooking, slather the chicken thighs with yogurt, garam masala, and salt. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4-6 hours.
Very finely mince a few strips of ginger and several cloves of garlic. Heat clarified butter or cooking oil under low-medium heat and sauté the aromatics for about 5 minutes.
Raise heat to high and add the chicken to the pan. Stir in 2 tbsp of tomato paste and sauté over high heat for 5 minutes. Lower the heat and stir in the entire can of crushed tomatoes.
Add salt, sugar, garam masala, paprika, cumin, and turmeric to taste, starting with 1-2 tbsp of each spice and adding additional as needed. Pour in ½ cup of heavy cream or coconut milk and stir until there is a homogeneous mixture. Simmer the dish for 15-20 min until the chicken is cooked through. While the curry is simmering, pan fry the block of paneer until browned on both sides.
Slice the paneer into rough cubes and arrange on top of the dish. Garnish with generous amounts of coarsely chopped cilantro and serve with basmati rice or naan.