How to Make "The Best Ever" Tikka Masala
Updated: May 16, 2022
I moved to America when I was twenty-one. I'd never been outside of India where I was born. I'd never travelled oversees to another country, ever. And after almost two decades of living in the same country, seeing the same neighborhoods, the same friends, smelling the same essences of coconut oil, curry, incense, interlaced with a smattering of air pollution, I decided to leave it all behind. I got married and moved to America.
It was the Indian-dream--going to America, living the "American life". And now, it was going to become my reality. Was I ready for it? I was sure I was. I was familiar with western culture, although from an Indian vantage point. But I was familiar. By the early 2000s, India had become pretty "westernized". I'd read books by American authors, I'd watched American shows on our Indian TV; I'd eaten burgers and fries at our local snack joint which inevitably tasted of curry. I knew the American phrases ("Got it"..."What's up?"..."Yeah, man"..."Cool"). I'd done all the pertinent things one needed to do to feel ready to face the "real America."
But then there was this one phrase that kept cropping up at every discussion I had with my American cousins--the transplanted relatives whose parents had crossed the raging seas back in the sixties and seventies from India over to the U.S. They were the first to leave the safety of the Indian nest and now, after four decades of living in America, they were the official "Indian-Americans" in our Indian family. And they kept harping on something I didn't quite understand: "Culture shock".
They kept referring to "culture shock" whenever I voiced my excitement in coming to America. They'd say "Oh yeah, you'll love it here...once you get over the culture shock."
Once I what?! What the heck was "culture shock"? I had no freakin' clue.
Lucky for me--I'm always lucky like that...you know, when I prefer not to be--I got a taste of the phrase "culture shock" on day one of my arrival. The shows I'd watched, the food I'd eaten, the American phrases, all vaporized into thin air against a western wind. It was different than what I thought it would be. America was different in person than on TV, or in print form. She was beautiful. She was larger-than-life. She had pride, but she knew how to laugh at herself. She had integrity, she had culture. It was shockingly different than what I was used to.
"I'm in culture-shock," was my first report back to the homeland. My relatives promised to pray for me. My grandma told me to slow-cook something to calm my nerves, my friends said, "I told you so". It was all very natural. As it should be. Of course, I didn't know that then.
But I realize it now, after almost two decades spent in this incredible country. The river ran its course, teaching me the lessons I needed to learn to become who I am today. It was slow, it was painful--sometimes embarrassing. For example, I now know that the red covering on Babybel cheese is not meant to be eaten. It's a coating, not a crust.
I was a fast learner, so I learned the ropes. I became, over the decades, the Indian-American immigrant who'd survived "culture shock."
One of the things I turned to in my adaptive years in America was comfort food. Food that reminded me of home. Food I loved to eat but also cook for myself and my family.
Tikka Masala was one such food item. Tikka masala, for those of you who may not be familiar, is a curry-flavored sauce which you can use as a base for most any Indian dishes. All you need to do is add any kind of protein to your tikka masala sauce, and you're good to go!
My aunties used to make this in large batches which they'd use to bang out three different dishes which all incredibly tasted unique, even though they shared the same sauce base.
In this blog, other than the ranting I did earlier, I'm going to share my go-to tikka masala recipe. No fancy stuff. But a tikka masala that you can make with your basic pantry items but one that'll taste like you've got Indian DNA in you.
So, here goes...
Ingredients you'll need to make a batch of Tikka Masala for about four hungry people:
4-5 medium tomatoes* (I like to use Roma, if you're using Beefsteak, just use 2-3)*Tip: The riper the tomato, the better the sauce.
1/4 cup of heavy cream (I like to cheat sometimes and use half n half)
four-five large cloves of garlic
An inch long piece of ginger
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon red chilli powder (also called "Deggi Mirch" which you can find at your local Indian store or online)
2 teaspoons curry powder or garam masala, whichever you have
fenugreek leaves (if you have it, or you can leave it out)
3 tablespoons ghee (if you don't have ghee, use the same amount of olive oil)
1 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste
1/4 teaspoon of sugar
A handful of freshly chopped coriander leaves (if you think it smells like soap, leave it out)
Take it over the edge with a splash of kewra water (found in the local grocer store or online)
First step is to prep your ingredients. Blend your tomatoes up into a puree. You can go as far with this as you like, depending on the kind of texture that appeals to you. But be sure the tomatoes are not left in small pieces or chunks.
Roughly pound your garlic and ginger together, without seeking perfection. Think "rustic".
In a saute pan, heat up some ghee* with your olive oil (so the ghee doesn't burn). *Ghee is clarified butter and you can find some excellent quality ghee online or in any of the local grocery stores, not just Indian grocery stores. You'll typically find this product in the baking section, where one would find shortening. If you don't have ghee, just use olive oil all the way. Don't you worry, you'll still get a slam dunk, tikka masala.
To your heated oil-ghee, add the freshly pounded ginger-garlic.
Saute for just about fifteen-twenty seconds, on low-medium heat.
Now add the following spices in no particular order: turmeric, coriander, red chilli powder, curry powder or garam masala, fenugreek leaves*. *Tip: Crush the fenugreek leaves between your fingers before you toss them in. They smell awful by themselves, but they'll have a pixie-dust effect on your tikka masala). Leave out the chilli powder and fenugreek if you don't have these, though. You can find this spice at your local Indian grocery store or online.
As soon as you add your spices in, go right ahead and add your tomato puree. If you let the spices roast in the oil too long, even a few extra seconds, they'll burn.
Once your tomatoes are in, cook this mixture for at least ten minutes until your tomatoes-spice mixture begins to look almost jam-like. This takes time, and rushing this step could make your dish taste uncooked. So, endure the wait time, until you get the texture. You'll also notice the oil separating from the mixture.
At this point, add in your cream or half n/ half. Mix together and add in about a 1/4 cup of water, followed by salt (as much as you like) and a sugar. Cook it about thirty-seconds, turn off the flame, add in some freshly chopped coriander leaves if you like with a splash of kewra water if you have it. Tikka Masala--done!
You can add whatever cooked protein you like to your tikka masala sauce, or you can eat it, as is, with rice, or naan, or roti.
I hope you'll find this recipe useful. My book, A New Mantra, has lots of fun dishes included in the story, because my heroine, Mira Sood, loves to cook. If you've read the book and would like me to share a recipes for any of the dishes in the book, please let me know in the comments section below. If you have general feedback, I'd love to hear that, too!