This week we’re making a famous dish that you might see on Indian-focused restaurant menus that was invented in a place known as the island of Great Britain. This is homemade chicken tikka masala and I’m going to sandwich it inside of one of my newest bread recipes.
What is chicken tikka masala?
If you’ve never tried it, chicken tikka masala is an Indian-style chicken dish that is covered in a creamy tomato sauce that is mildly spiced and in my opinion, very comforting. If you haven’t had tikka masala but you are familiar with butter chicken, they are very similarly prepared dishes in my experience.
There’s some belief that tikka masala was invented in the 1960s or 70s in Britain. In fact, there are a lot of potential origin stories over on Wikipedia and some of them even involve Campbell’s tomato soup and sneaky chefs trying to trick journalists. At this point, I’m less concerned with informing you about the origin story of tikka masala and more interested in just writing about what it tastes like and is composed of.
The word tikka in Persian means “pieces” and masala translates to “spices” or “spice blend.” So, chicken tikka masala = chicken pieces in spices.
Tikka masala is a reddish-orange sauce that has a primary base of tomato with yogurt added to make it creamier. The spicing is primarily warming spices like cinnamon, cardamom, peppercorns, coriander seeds, and nutmeg. These spices are often sold as a blend called Garam Masala (again masala means a blend of spices and in this case “garam” translates to “hot”). So, tikka masala becomes a saucy comforting dish filled with bite-sized pieces of boneless chicken that is often served on top of white rice alongside a piece of naan-style flatbread.
In my experience with Indian takeout/delivery places, tikka masala sauce is creamy and warming but I don’t think I’ve ever had a version that was very spicy. My recipe is fairly mild with a tiny hint of heat, but I would not consider it to be spicy–and I add notes in my recipe to remove almost all of the spicy heat if you prefer.
Has anyone ever made a chicken tikka masala sandwich?
Yes! I did not invent this idea. Before I started working on this particular blog post I had never really heard about tikka masala in a sandwich, but I was very certain that someone had already made it. Turns out that a ton of folks across the internet have, and Sandwich Tribunal used tikka masala sauce in a chicken schnitzel sandwich, so I felt that justified my decision to make my own version.
Inspiration for my tikka masala recipe
I first made chicken tikka masala a couple of years ago based on a recipe from a cookbook called Cook90 by David Tamarkin. This is a good recipe, but it doesn’t quite taste like the tikka masala from the two nearby Indian delivery options near our house. From what I have read, the tikka masala dishes in the United Kingdom are rarely the same, so altering someone else’s recipe to be your own is probably done with this dish very often. There are a couple of things that my wife and I wanted to change from this recipe which are:
- remove the peas
- add a bit of sweetness
- change the spices up a little
- use a smoother blend of tomatoes
These changes were easy to achieve with a couple of attempts at tweaking the base recipe.
I hope I’m not discouraging anyone from trying the base recipe or buying the book. In fact, I want to do the opposite. It’s a good recipe from a solid cookbook that has my favorite sesame chicken recipe that you can get on the table in a very short period. But we just wanted to change the tikka masala sauce recipe up to suit our personal tastes.
This recipe was a fantastic jumping-off point and after we made our changes my wife and I both feel our recipe is close to what we get when we order chicken tikka masala for delivery.
We made the changes and then tested it a couple of times and my most recent attempt at my recipe was for my wife three days ago. She was happy so I consider this recipe a success.
The peas aren’t terrible in this dish but it’s just not what my household enjoys. It is a good way of introducing some vegetables into the final dish though. I would honestly prefer peas on the side if you were going to bring them to the table.
Is tikka masala already sandwich friendly?
Yes, you can totally turn any serving of tikka masala into a handheld sandwich-style meal with just a bit of naan or flatbread. There’s no doubt that ambitious people have been doing this for decades.
First, we need some bread, and this is my newest bread recipe which rolls hard on the sweet, roasted garlic flavor that works very well with chicken tikka masala.
Roasted garlic and cilantro sandwich rolls
I chose to concoct a roll recipe that was based on the concept of garlic naan. I know that garlic naan does not use roasted garlic, but this roll does bring in flavors that remind me of that type of flatbread that is typically painted with minced garlic, melted butter, and finely diced cilantro. It worked well and even though my tikka masala sauce is very flavorful, you can still taste the roasted garlic sweetness from the roll in each bite.
Roasted garlic: cloves or whole heads?
Most of the time I roast garlic whole in a head with the top sliced off, but for both of my most recent tests of this bread recipe I used whole cloves that someone at the grocery store peeled for me. In my experience, it takes about the same amount of time but in the end, you don’t have to worry about squeezing the garlic out of its paper. You do pay a premium for pre-peeled garlic, but sometimes my time is worth these sorts of quick solutions.
The roasted garlic adds a bit more color to the dough than I originally expected. It almost makes the dough seem like it’s wheat bread dough (there’s a cross-section photo of a sliced sandwich way down below that shows the interior dough). There’s a considerable amount of sweetness that the roasted garlic adds as well so it’s just a great, flavorful finished bread.
I considered adding another step to the recipe where I painted the rolls with melted butter which would add butter flavor to the exterior and would make the bread taste even more like garlic naan, but that would change the slightly crusty exterior that is built up with the addition of steam in the oven.
Here’s my roasted garlic and cilantro sandwich roll recipe that would be great for your next meatball sub or even a cold cut, cheese, and dressed lettuce hoagie.
Chicken tikka masala
I like to use chicken thighs cut up into bite-sized pieces in my tikka masala, but you can (and I did) make it with chicken breast pieces as well. You could even use a combination of the two if you wanted.
In a more authentic chicken tikka masala, the chicken might possibly be cooked in a tandoori or a clay oven, but my version cooks directly in the same pan that the sauce will eventually be cooked in. You toss the chicken pieces in a simple spice blend and then sauté them in butter and vegetable oil.
After the chicken is cooked through, you remove it from the pan and then start making the sauce by starting with the ginger, garlic, and onion.
Ginger, garlic, and onion puree
The first part of this recipe and probably one of the reasons that it cooks quickly is turning ginger, garlic, and onion pieces into a finely diced or chopped puree. This is quick work in a food processor or a high-powered blender, but you can accomplish the same thing with a sharp knife and a bit of time and elbow grease.
You need to get all three ingredients into what is basically a paste, which will take probably 7 or 8 minutes of chopping or 1 to 2 minutes in a food processor.
Then the paste is sweated in butter and the residual fat and pan drippings from cooking the chicken pieces. This step in the sauce creation process builds flavor that will help the finished sauce taste savorier and richer.
Yogurt vs cream
Chicken tikka masala is almost always made with yogurt. But it annoys the heck out of me how plain, non-Greek yogurt is sold in grocery stores. I seem to only be able to find plain yogurt in HUGE quantities (32 ounces or more) and there just aren’t that many other recipes that I make that call for plain yogurt. When I’m finished using it in tikka masala, I’m left with a bunch of plain yogurt to throw into the garbage.
So, I made a test batch of chicken tikka masala and switched out the yogurt for heavy cream, which worked well. The yogurt should help with thickening the sauce as well, but honestly, it’s thick enough for me with cream. And I didn’t notice any difference in the flavor either. This convinced me to stick with heavy cream in my final recipe.
Microwave fried shallots
Can you fry things in the microwave? Yes, yes you can.
You can pan fry shallots, or you can microwave fry shallots. It actually takes just a bit less time to do this in the microwave, but you use less oil, and you don’t have to worry about splattering oil in your frying pan. The process in the microwave is to go for a full 5 minutes of cooking time and then remove the bowl, stir the oil and shallots, and microwave for 30 seconds at a time until you get the color you want.
Warning: remove the shallots from the microwave BEFORE they get to the color you wish. Just remember that while the shallots are in the oil and even for a minute or two afterward the oil that is touching the shallots is HOT and is still cooking the shallots. So, remove it when it just starts to reach a light tan.
Here’s my recipe for microwave fried shallots. I do not include those in my full recipe for the chicken tikka masala sandwich down below because I think the crispy ones you can buy at the store work better. But you can bookmark this quick microwave shallot recipe for the topping of your next salad or shrimp and grits recipe.
Chicken tikka masala sandwich photos and recipe
Here’s a bunch of photos I’ve taken during the testing phases of this sandwich. I made it a bunch and it’s great. Try it and see if I’m lying!
As you’ll see below, most of these sandwiches include French’s fried onions instead of microwaved shallots. They both have their plusses and minuses. The shallots are WAY more flavorful, but the scientifically created French’s onions keep their crunch until the last bite of the sandwich, while the shallots do not.
Here's a recipe for chicken tikka masala in sandwich form. It's a comforting hug in a six-inch sandwich format with savory chicken in a warm spiced, creamy tomato sauce.
Ingredients:Ginger, garlic, onion and chicken
- 1 two-inch piece of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
- 4 to 5 garlic cloves
- 1⁄2 yellow onion, roughly chopped
- 2 pounds boneless chicken thighs or breast meat, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1⁄2 teaspoon cumin
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 1⁄2 teaspoon garam masala
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
- 26 to 28 ounces strained tomatoes
- 1⁄2 cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 six-inch sandwich sub roll or French roll
- chicken tikka masala (from above)
- cilantro, diced into small pieces
- French's fried onions or homemade fried shallots
Ginger, garlic, and onion: add ginger and garlic cloves to a food processor and pulse until they are small pieces. (Note: if you do not have a food processor, you can still make this, you just must chop the ginger, garlic, and onion until they are finely chopped into almost a paste).
Once the ginger and garlic are chopped finely, add chunks of onion to the food processor and pulse the onions along with the ginger and garlic. Keep pulsing until everything is pureed into a smooth paste. Place the pureed paste into a small bowl for use in the sauce.
Chicken seasoning: in a large bowl add all your chicken pieces cut into bite-sized, 1-inch pieces. Add garam masala, salt, black pepper, and cumin to the chicken. Using your hands mix the chicken pieces and spices until all the chicken pieces are coated with spices.
Chicken cooking: add vegetable oil and butter to a large pan over medium heat.
When the butter is melted and bubbling add chicken pieces making sure not to crowd the pan by putting the pieces too close together. Cook each piece of chicken for around 6 or 7 minutes. I like to cook them for at least 5 minutes on the first side without moving them so that the chicken will take on some browning color. Doing it this way, you end up cooking it for less on the second side, but the chicken will still be cooked fully, and it also is going back to cook in hot sauce later in the process.
Once all the chicken is cooked you can move it to a bowl to rest. The chicken will cook a bit longer in the sauce, so you don't have to worry too much about undercooking as long as you cook for 6 or 7 minutes. If your pan isn't large enough, you may have to cook these in batches.
Leave all the residual oil and chicken drippings in the pan after removing the chicken.
Tikka masala sauce: when all the chicken has been removed and is resting in a bowl, add another tablespoon of butter to the same pan you cooked the chicken in over the same medium heat. Add the ginger, garlic, and onion mixture to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally for 3 to 4 minutes or until everything is very soft.
Add tomato paste, garam masala, turmeric, cayenne pepper, and brown sugar and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently to cook the spice.
Add strained tomatoes and cook for 5 more minutes. At this point, you can add the cooked chicken pieces back to the pan with the sauce.
Add 1/2 cup of heavy cream, stir very well to combine, and cook for an additional 5 minutes to warm everything up.
Finish the sauce with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and stir everything to combine. Remove the pan from the heat and get ready to build your sandwich.
Sandwich assembly: slice a six-inch roll 2/3rds of the way through and fill it with chicken and tikka masala sauce. Make sure a tablespoon or so of sauce gets into the back of the roll to ensure the sandwich is sauced enough.
Garnish the sauced chicken with diced cilantro and top it with a few French's fried onions to add crunch.
Serve and enjoy.
I do not consider this recipe to be very spicy. It is pretty mild, but you can remove all of the cayenne powder to eliminate any spice heat that this sandwich might have.
Come back next week to see what I get up to next.
I’ll be writing about tea! And also sandwiches.
If you want insider information about what sandwiches are coming next you can join my Patreon and get extra behind-the-scenes sandwich information.