As an English woman, I have quite an inclination towards curry, particularly towards the Indian kind. My love for the stuff developed throughout my life, thanks to mother dearest. From a young age, my two brothers and I would be the tasting panel for her experimental concoctions of world cuisine. For a housewife in the mid-1980s and the UK, my mother was considered the adventurous type. Baby food was often a pulped down versions of adult food. Garlic was in my system by the age of 12 months. As young children, we sat at the oversized wooden kitchen table every night, legs dangling to and fro, anxiously waiting for the creation for that evening. Mexican stews, Chinese stir-fry; the experience, although sometimes horrifying, opened my mind and palette to complex flavours. Whilst my friends dined on sausages and mash, chicken n’ chips, my family took daily adventures, across the seas, experiencing foods of foreign lands and tropical destinations. The one cuisine my mother could never tire of is Indian. Her love for the complexity in spices and rich sauces was handed down, from mother to daughter, from her stove to my plate, and from her passion to my appetite.
Into adulthood, as I began my own adventure with food, my love for Indian cuisine developed. In London, I had Brick Lane, a cobbled-stoned pedestrian street lined with curry restaurants and bars. Heaven on earth. In Manchester, during my student days, I had Wilmslow Road, a.k.a. the Curry Mile, the city’s main artery of Indian cuisine. The Curry Mile’s Vegas-meets-Bollywood appearance, with its luminous, multi-coloured restaurant fronts, drew me in night after night for an almost-fluorescent Tikka Masala and multi-coloured Pilaf rice. The chip-na’an was the reveling students’ favourite, Na’an bread stuffed with chips and topped with mango chutney. The carbohydrate sponge of Indian spiced potato and bread was an undisputable safety measure against any potential hangover state in the morning. My tangerine-stained lips were a clear indication of my curry addiction, albeit a chemically-induced MSG addiction, which had dug its roots into my appetite.
During my student days, when my own culinary adventures began, it is not surprising that my first major attempt in the kitchen was the renowned Chicken Tikka Malasa. The outcome was pitiful. Dried-out pieces of chicken breast floating helplessly in a pool of watery tomato sauce. The result was an unappetizing bowl of sadness. Even though I had faced a complete culinary failure, my positivism and delight stayed afloat, enlightened by the experience of cooking. The dynamics of dancing around the space of a kitchen, conquering a place in which I juggled between raw ingredients, heat and spatula, thrilled me . I was inspired by the development of raw substance into gastronomic beauty; the process of layering spice after spice, as I molded the flavours and textures into a painting of taste. My journey with food had begun.
My appreciation for curry, thankfully, wasn’t fully circumscribed during my university days. In fact, my curiosity and love for the complex tones of Indian cuisine has grown ever since.
Since coming to Israel, I have continued in my pursuit for a good curry. After my trip to Ramle’s food market, I was determined to put my purchased spices to good use. I decided to return to the dish that proved a challenge almost 7 years ago, Chicken Tikka Masala. Ironically, this dish, which appears in most Indian curry houses across the UK, is arguably a British creation. All those years ago, English diners are said to have requested gravy with their red-stained spiced Chicken Tikka. The result was Chicken Tikka drenched in a creamy Masala sauce. Despite its history, one cannot deny the foundations of Indian technique and flavour defining the components of the dish.
If I was to successfully create the dish, I had to consult one of the great Indian culinary figures, the influence of Indian gastronomy into Western kitchens and, arguably, the personification of the Chicken Tikka Masala, Madhur Jeffery.
Preparation of the Chicken Tikka Masala consists of two elements: the Chicken Tikka and Masala sauce. As with many heavy sauces, especially those that include a complex composition, the flavours strengthen over time. So, I prepared the masala sauce in my spare time, froze the batch, and then reheated when I was ready to use it. The Chicken Tikka is simple to complete. Given this method, this dish is ideal for large dinner parties, as most of it can be prepared ahead of time and in large quantities.
The following recipe is my adaptation of Madhur Jaffry’s Chicken Tikka Masala. Apologies for my pathetic photography. This is the next mission of the Dining Minx.
Chicken Tikka Masala
5 tbsp olive or groundnut oil
5 cardamom pods
5cm/2in piece of cinnamon stick
2 onions, finely chopped
2 tsp finely grated fresh root ginger
2 tsp garlic, crushed to a pulp
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1g/¼tsp ground turmeric
3-5g/½-1 tsp cayenne pepper (depending on how hot you like it)
1 tbsp bright-red paprika
1 large tomato, very finely chopped
1 tsp tomato purée
1 tsp garam masala
Half a can of coconut milk (optional – Dining Minx’s addition)
Put the oil into a large, wide pan and set it over a medium-high heat. When it is very hot, put in the cardamom pods and cinnamon stick. Stir once, then add the onions. Stir until they begin to turn brown at the edges. Add the ginger and garlic and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add the cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne and paprika and stir for 30 seconds.
Dining Minx’s important tip: It is important that the oil is extremely hot at the beginning stages, the impact of the heat onto the first set of spices draws out the aroma, flavouring the oil, and creating a strong base for the rest of the ingredients. The onions must be browned, so that they impart a sweet, caramelised flavour to the dish. Curries are about laying complex flavours, and the way each layer is treated influences the final result. You wouldn’t just throw different colours of paint on a canvas, each colour is applied with different brushes and strokes. This is the same with cooking.
Add the tomato, tomato purée and garam masala and cook, stirring for a minute.
Dining Minx’s important tip: When using tomato puree, ensure the ingredient is cooked through, in order to eliminate the raw taste of the paste, and enhance the earthiness of its flavours.
Pour in the water and bring to a simmer. Cover, turn the heat to low and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Taste for salt, adding about ¾ tsp or as needed.
An optional final touch is a cup of coconut milk to the completed Masala. The milk enriches the sauce with a fruity sweetness, balances the acidity in the tomatoes and brings each ingredient to the fore.
Dining Minx’s tip: The sauce can be made in big batches, and frozen in individual containers. At a moment’s notice, chicken or lamb tikka can be added to the reheated sauce.
This recipe calls for 1.25kg/2½lbs of Chicken Tandoori (or Tikka). In England, ready-made Chicken Tikki is available in many supermarkets. In Israel, this isn’t the case. Hence, with the Tandoori spices from Ramle, I was able to recreate this dish on my own accord.
Combine the chicken pieces with the Tandoori spice mix, a squeeze of lemon and a tablespoon of olive oil. Placed the chicken in the fridge for a minimum of an hour and up to 24 hours.
Heat a grill pan until it is extremely hot. Lay the pieces of chicken, along with red pepper pieces and a few mushrooms, on the pan. This may take several turns. The grilling technique helps to replicate the smoky flavour created in a tandoor oven.
Once cooked, add the grilled chicken and vegetable pieces to the Masala sauce, raise the heat to high and fold the chicken into the sauce. The sauce should thicken and cling to the chicken pieces.
I served this dish with plain Basmati rice.
Result: my expat friend, Channah, confirmed the curry was as good as any she would get in her local curry house in Leeds. Guess I am on to a winner! Although, next step should be to improve my photography!
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