Seriously Good Chicken Tikka MAsala


This recipe comes from Heavy Table’s new Hearth newsletter, a monthly collection of recipes, cookbook reviews, maker and farmer profiles, and more. Get the Hearth (and three other Upper Midwestern culinary newsletters) by backing the Heavy Table on Patreon. The Hearth is produced with the support of Eastside Food Co-op in Northeast Minneapolis.

I’ve had more than a few mediocre chicken tikka masalas in my day, because – like pad Thai or chicken fajitas, or for that matter, pizza – it’s a dish that gets put on menus to be accessible to broad swathes of novice eaters, and it’s a dish that tastes passable even when made with minimal love or effort.

When it fails, it’s often due to a thick, one-note sauce that buries the underpowered, overcooked chunks of chicken. With enough heavy cream and adequately cooked rice, you’re definitely looking at sustenance, but not much more.

This recipe solves the problem of snooze-worthy chicken tikka masala from two directions. First: an intensely flavorful marinade that gives the chicken some serious kick and depth of flavor. Second: a cooking method that puts enough char on your meat that it stands out even beneath a rich, full-flavored sauce.


1. To accompany this recipe a few months ago, I bought a pack of frozen paratha from India Bazaar in Plymouth and was astounded by how good the bread was – flaky, buttery, delicious after having gone straight from the freezer to a frying pan. At a different store, I found myself forced to purchase a different brand of frozen paratha… which was also terrific. A third, also different package clinched it: all frozen paratha is apparently excellent. 

1a. This isn’t true for frozen naan! You can absolutely get mediocre frozen naan.

2. This recipe scales up extremely well. Double it, triple it, quadruple it, you add little additional work for a lot more tasty food, other than making all the skewers, which, yeah, takes some time.

3. Happily related: This recipe also freezes well.

4. One of the major changes I’ve made to this recipe over the years has been to progressively step down the salt. You may want to increase the salt level to suit your own tastes, but I feel like there’s plenty going on between the spices and the char to make it an entertaining dish to eat.

5. Both the marinade and sauce recipes, as written, can take two pounds’ worth of chicken without too much difficulty, so if you double the meat, you don’t need to double the marinade or sauce.

6. We used chicken breasts from Faribault, Minn.-based Tree-Range Farms for this recipe. The meat from these chickens (raised in forested pastures on a wild, omnivorous diet) was firmer and more flavorful than a typical industrial-farmed bird, and consequently tastier.


1. We’ve been making this recipe with chicken for years, but for this edition of the Hearth, we also tried out three vegetarian replacements for the chicken – a delicata squash sliced into half-moon pieces, an eggplant, and some mock duck. 

2. We didn’t marinate the vegetables or mock duck, but we oiled, salted, and peppered all three meat substitutes and grilled them on skewers before combining them for a 10-minute simmer in the finishing sauce.

3. We enjoyed all three chicken substitutes, but doing it again we would cut up the delicata squash into considerably smaller pieces and we would’ve used three or even four cans of mock duck (one was far less than the sauce could accomodate). 

4. In terms of amounts: 3-4 delicata squash would do it for a single recipe, or 2-3 medium sized eggplants, or 3-4 cans of mock duck. No need to peel the squash or eggplants.


1 cup yogurt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons fresh ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

3 boneless skinless chicken breasts (a pound plus), cut into bite-size pieces (OR: 3-4 delicata squash seeded but not peeled and sliced into half-moons OR: 2-3 medium-sized eggplants not peeled and sliced into bite-sized pieces OR: 3-4 cans of mock duck)

4 long skewers

1 tablespoon butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, finely chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

In a large bowl, combine yogurt, lemon juice, 2 teaspoons cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, black pepper, ginger, and salt. Stir in chicken, cover, and refrigerate for 1 hour. (If you’re doing this as a vegetarian recipe, no need to marinade the vegetables or the mock duck.)

Preheat a grill for high heat. You can do this on a cast iron griddle, in your oven’s broiler, or on a Weber in the back yard, if you like. My preference is Weber first, then the oven, and finally the griddle (which tends to really smoke up the kitchen).

Lightly oil the grill surface. Thread chicken tightly onto your skewers, and discard marinade. Grill until juices run clear, about 5 minutes on each side. (I’ll often cut through a large test chunk just to get visual sense of my progress.)

If you’re grilling veggies, rub them with vegetable oil, and sprinkle them with salt and pepper.

Melt butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Saute garlic and jalapeno for 1 minute. Season with 2 teaspoons cumin, paprika, and 1 teaspoon salt. Stir in tomato sauce and cream. Simmer on low heat until sauce thickens, about 20 minutes. Add grilled chicken or grilled vegetables / mock duck, and simmer for 10 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter, and garnish with fresh cilantro. Serve with basmati rice and/or paratha.