Ask Peter: Tikka masala
I love to make chicken tikka masala at home but can never get the deep red colour or flavour of the sauce like in the meals I buy at food courts or from Indian franchises. Any ideas please?
The interesting thing about chicken tikka masala is that no one really knows where it originated, and also there is no definitive recipe for it.
There have been debates raging for years about whether it comes from India or Pakistan, the Punjab, Glasgow, the British Midlands or even London. There was even a proposal tabled for the British Parliament to give it a PGI (a European Union “Protected Geographical Indication” status). The motion never made it to debate stage, which is a real shame as I know millions of lovers of the dish — considered to be the most popular “Indian” dish in the world — would have been curious to see whether it was indeed created in Glasgow, Delhi or Lahore.
If it had been decided that Glasgow could lay claim, then it would have meant that any restaurant or ready-meal company not based in Glasgow would not be able to call it tikka masala. And if we had gone down that route of a dish being given this protection, then when will pavlova stop being made in Australia and who could claim Anzac biscuits? I’m all for champagne coming only from the region of Champagne, but a dish made of many components with foggy historical back-up seems a step too far.
What this means in regards to your question though, is that there are obviously many versions and variations out there. As I’m not exactly sure what it is you’re hoping to recreate, I’d say the best thing is to look at the list of ingredients on the packaging of the brand you’re using and see if anything “red” pops up to lead you to the colour you’re after. It may help you with spicing it as well. However, it is also probable the company may have used a pre-made tikka masala spice mixture, something you’re likely to find in a food store or supermarket. The thing is, there is no definitive recipe.
In London I’m yet to see a red tikka masala — here they’re always a lovely creamy orange colour, with various degrees of richness, but always spicy hot. I’ve eaten it made where the chicken pieces (I personally use only the thigh, as it’s better-tasting and juicier) are marinated in yoghurt and spices overnight (cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander seeds, lots of turmeric and the reddest paprika you can find), then added to caramelised onion and chillies, stewed with tomato puree and cream, and finished with toasted crushed curry leaves.
I’ve also had it where the chicken pieces are marinated in pureed tomatoes, red capsicums, ginger, garlic and spices (including garam masala) overnight. The next day onions are caramelised along with more sliced capsicum, the chicken and marinade is added and it’s all slowly stewed with 60 per cent coconut cream and 40 per cent yoghurt, finished with a little toasted desiccated coconut and smothered with coriander leaves.
But, trying to sort out your dilemma of both colour and flavour, I’d suggest adding a few extra bits and pieces.
Roast an unpeeled, but skin-scrubbed, beetroot in foil and once cooked and cooled, peel it and puree with a heaped tablespoon turmeric powder and either 1 cup coconut cream or yoghurt (or combination of both) till smooth — the beetroot will give you redness and earthy flavour. It can be used as the marinade of the chicken or added to the sauce once the onions are caramelised and chicken added.
Or try adding tomato paste— this will also add earthiness, tang, and redness.
Pureeing capsicums and red chillies into the marinade or sauce will also add redness.
For a deeper flavour, add some garam masala to the marinade, but also stir some in at the end of the cooking for a really lovely, fresh earthiness. Any spice you toast before adding will add a lot more flavour. Try toasting cloves, bashed green cardamoms, a snapped cinnamon quill and coriander seeds in a pan or on a baking tray (cooked at 160C) till aromatic — the flavour increases 10 fold.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.