Chicken tikka masala — a fairly delectable concoction of tomatoes, cream, fenugreek and grilled, boneless chicken — has become the poster child of stereotypical Indian food, leading most of us knowledgeable in Indian cuisine extremely hesitant to associate with it.
When done right, it can be a palate-pleasing dish. I mean, who can argue with smoky chicken morsels smothered in a mildly spiced tomato cream sauce? All things considered, it’s a fairly good introduction to the world of Indian cuisine before moving on to bigger and better things.
But this is where the problem lies. The love for chicken tikka masala does not leave much room for taking that next step. On the contrary, it seems to be gathering more fans and converts in its wake. A few cohorts that aid in its cause are the saag paneer (Indian cheese morsels in a creamed spinach sauce) and the leavened, butter-slathered naan bread. They woo the spice-averse with cream and butter and the novelty of a tandoori oven.
Lights … camera … stereotype
A recently released food movie, “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” takes us from the bustling markets of Mumbai to farm markets in rural France and on a journey of reinventing Indian food in chic Paris — all in an hour and a half. However, before moving on to molecular gastronomy, the movie’s central character, Hassan Kadam, wows us with his fare in his family restaurant, Maison Mumbai, with dishes such as saag paneer and butter chicken, essentially enough hackneyed restaurant fare to make any true-blue Indian foodie shudder.
Departing from the author’s original fairly adventurous food renderings, the movie makers introduce the viewer to Hassan’s talents by talking tandoori, showing stunning pictures of saag paneer before moving onto other essentials and brave and bold fusion.
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This creates the same frustration that leads most Indian food professionals to shy away from the chicken tikka masala, as the dish has stymied the broadening of the essential Indian repertoire.
Certainly, we have come a long way. There is a lot of exploration in Indian cuisine. Yet few restaurants leave this staple off their menus. They call it different names and sometimes add nuances to it that might add a layer of sophistication or a somewhat varied touch, but it is there — in some shape or form.
Even sandwich chains have moved on to include tikka sandwiches or wraps in their repertoire as a nod to the cuisine of India.
Is chicken tikka masala even originally from India?
Chicken tikka masala also suffers from heritage issues. It is difficult to bond, I mean, truly bond, with a dish that supposedly was invented in a curry house in London. It is hard to wax poetic about it like it was something conjured up in your grandmother’s kitchen.
If you are a fan of this brightly hued, rich-tasting curry, it is not my intent to offend you. Instead, it is to move you along to the other aspects and dimensions of your Indian restaurant menu. Yes, you can be adventurous, too. Explore, and you might surprise yourself with a new favorite or maybe a few. Imagine the possibilities.
If you like it spicy, a chicken chettinad from Southern India might please with its notes of garlic and black pepper. A simple chicken curry with ginger and tomatoes could tantalize the taste buds, without any unnecessary cream. And, of course, a kerala coconut and curry leaf chicken curry might also satisfy the indulgent palate with gentle citrus notes from the curry leaves.
The objective here is to taste the complete bouquet of flavors that good Indian cooking offers, rather than a muted version that is further masked with too much cream.
I offer you as a peace offering a nuanced cauliflower dish, which is creamy and richly flavored with ground poppy seeds and cashews. No cream here. This recipe for cauliflower rezala is a vegetarian adaptation of the Mughlai style of cooking found in Eastern India. This variant combines traditional Mughlai ingredients, such as yogurt and dried fruits, with core Bengali ingredients, such as the poppy seeds used in this dish. A mutton or chicken rezala is fairly rich. I first lightened the original with chicken in the “Bengali Five Spice Chronicles” and have adapted this for the cauliflower and kept it relatively simple. If you can find pale cheddar cauliflower, it should result in a pretty rendition.
Cauliflower Rezala – Cauliflower in a Cashew, Yogurt and Poppy Seed Sauce
Prep Time: 4 hours (mainly to marinate the cauliflower)
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 4 hours, 30 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
For the marinade:
3/4 cup Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 medium-sized cauliflower, cut into medium-sized pieces
For the cashew cream paste:
1/2 cup cashews
1/2 cup poppy seeds soaked in warm water for 2 hours or longer
Water for blending
For the base:
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon caraway seeds (know as shazeera)
1 medium-sized onion, grated on the large holes of a box grater
2 to 3 bay leaves
4 to 6 green cardamoms, bruised
3/4 teaspoon red cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon clarified butter (ghee)
1 tablespoon rosewater (optional)
Slivered almonds and or pistachios
1. Beat the yogurt with the salt and marinate the cauliflower pieces in the mixture for at least 3 hours.
2. Grind the cashews and poppy seeds into a smooth paste and set aside. You need to start with the poppy seeds, without too much water, just enough to create a paste, and then add the cashews with 1/3 cup water.
3. Heat the oil and add the caraway seeds. When they sizzle, add the onion.
4. Cook the onion for at least 7 minutes until it begins to turn pale golden.
5. Add the bay leaves, cardamoms, cayenne pepper and then the cauliflower. Cook on medium heat until well mixed. Cover and cook for 7 minutes.
6. Remove the cover and stir well. Add the poppy seed and cashew paste and mix well.
7. Stir in the clarified butter and cook on low heat for another 3 minutes. Note: The gravy should be thick and soft, and the cauliflower tender but not mushy.
8. Sprinkle with the rosewater, if using, and garnish with slivered almonds or pistachios.
Main photo: The ubiquitous chicken tikka masala can be delicious. But why stop there? Credit: Rinku Bhattacharya