Recipe: Dairy-Free Chicken Tikka Masala

June 8, 2012

I read an interesting article in the New York Times recently about Western chefs, like Rick Bayless, who gained notoriety cooking a cuisine they have no cultural ties to: “Cuisines Mastered as Acquired Tastes.” Besides having a practical edge on their immigrant counterparts, Western chefs who specialize in an ethnic cuisine they did not grow up eating are able to adapt traditional dishes to Western taste buds.

Cooking a cuisine as an outsider also enables one to think more creatively and employ techniques and ingredients from other parts of the world. For example, in today’s recipe for chicken tikka masala, I borrowed a marinating technique from the Middle East (lemon and tomato paste) and a thickening agent (roux) from France. I’ve also never seen tahini in an Indian marinade. While I did this in order to replace the butter, yogurt, and cream that normally goes into chicken tikka masala, sometimes I substitute ingredients because I can’t find the authentic ones. Cooking Indian food in America is not always easy, unless you happen to live near an Indian grocery store.

Cooking chicken tikka masala without a tandoor oven is also problematic. British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal actually built his own tandoor oven by stacking bricks in a charcoal grill. (This was a simplification of his original tandoor oven, which involved digging a pit in the ground.) If I had a charcoal grill and some spare bricks, I might try his method. Unfortunately, I don’t, so I had to go with the less authentic grill pan. I did, however, use his idea of incorporating a roux into the marinade from his recipe, which he says helps the marinade stick to the chicken.

While I’m merely an Indian food enthusiast, not an expert, I have been cooking it for years—ever since my dad brought back this amazing Indian cookbook on one of his trips to the subcontinent. (Disclaimer: this cookbook is not for amateur cooks; the recipes are complicated and difficult to follow.) Therefore, I have a few pieces of advice for anyone who wants to try her hand at cooking Indian food, starting with the most important:

The Spices

NEVER use curry powder. Curry powder is not Indian. In fact, the word “curry” is a British invention, adapted from the Tamil word for “sauce”—kari. You can, and should, use garam masala, a popular warm spice blend used in North Indian cooking. It’s especially good with potatoes. The word “masala” is used to describe a mix of spices.

Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of Indian cooking is the use of fresh spices. You should always buy whole spices. To prepare the spices, just toast them in a dry pan and grind them in a mortar and pestle. Some recipes even call for you to leave the spices whole (especially cumin). The only exceptions I make to the fresh spice rule are turmeric—turmeric is a root, like ginger—and garam masala. You can make your own garam masala but it involves buying a lot of spices and using a spice grinder (some of the spices in this mix would be difficult to grind with a mortar and pestle).

While pre-ground spices don’t go bad, they do lose their flavor. So if you do use ground spices, keep that in mind—and don’t keep the spices after they’ve been sitting in your pantry for six months.

The Rice

Rice is one of those things that’s so easy to make yet equally easy to screw up. My rice often ends up mushy or sticky, which is not a good accompaniment to Indian food. Fortunately, I’ve discovered a foolproof method for cooking rice: boil white basmati rice in lots of water for 10 minutes (bring the water to a boil before you add the rice), then drain it, return it to the pot and let it steam, tightly covered and off the heat, for 10 more minutes. It’s just like making pasta. Unless you forget about the rice and let it boil for too long, you’ll end up with delicious fluffy rice every time. This method also takes some of the starch out of the rice, so it’s lower in carbohydrates.

If you’re making brown rice, follow the same steps but boil the rice for 30 minutes instead of 10. Here’s a recipe from Saveur magazine.

The Sauces

Indian cuisine is very diverse (there are a billion people and 28 states, after all), and Westerns are most familiar with North Indian cuisine, which is where butter chicken and samosas hail from. North Indian curries are thick and creamy, due to copious amounts of butter, yogurt, and/or cream.

Personally, I find that all of this dairy is unnecessary and sometimes detracts from the flavor of the spices and fresh vegetables. I generally cut back on the cream and butter (or ghee). You can also cut the dairy out entirely, like I did in this recipe. Coconut oil is a good substitute for ghee because of its high smoke point. Likewise, cashew cream can stand in for either cream or yogurt. If using it to replace yogurt, add a little lemon juice to give it some tang.

However you make your sauces, be sure to use fresh ingredients. Canned tomatoes, for example, are awful in chicken tikka masala, and saag made with frozen spinach is an abomination.

Mise en place

My last piece of advice for anyone interested in cooking Indian food is to get all of the spice mixes, pastes, and even the sauces ready ahead of time (what the French would call “mise en place”—everything in place). Generally, when I’m cooking Indian food I set aside the entire day because there are so many components to each dish. Curries can be made a day ahead of time. In fact, they often develop more depth of flavor after a day in the fridge, like a good beef bourguignon.

Indian food may be time consuming to prepare, but the results more than make up for the effort. Also, not all dishes are as complicated as chicken tikka masala. Madhur Jaffrey has many easy, fast vegetarian recipes in her cookbook World Vegetarian. But when you feel like treating your loved ones and filling your kitchen with the aroma of toasted cumin and fresh ginger—or, like me, you want to convert someone who doesn’t like dairy to the glories of Indian cuisine—give this recipe for Dairy-Free Chicken Tikka Masala a try.

Dairy-Free Chicken Tikka Masala

serves 6

<center><br><br>Dairy-Free Chicken Tikka Masala

For the garlic-ginger paste:
2 bulbs garlic, peeled and chopped
Chopped ginger (same amount as garlic)
Pinch salt

For the cumin-coriander mix:
2 Tbsp whole cumin seeds
2 Tbsp whole coriander seeds

For the marinade:
2 Tbsp coconut oil
3 Tbsp chickpea flour (besan)
1 green chili, chopped (see note*)
¼ cup cilantro leaves
½ cup lemon juice
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 Tbsp tahini
¼ cup garlic-ginger paste
2 Tbsp cumin-coriander mix
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp turmeric
¼ tsp cayenne
¼ tsp cinnamon
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 2 lbs)

For the sauce:
2 lbs tomatoes (I used Roma)
2 Tbsp coconut oil
1 white onion, diced
2 Tbsp garlic-ginger paste
1 Tbsp cumin-coriander mix
½ tsp turmeric
5 green cardamom pods
½ tsp garam masala
½ cup coconut milk
½ recipe cashew cream

Chopped green chili
Cilantro leaves

To make the garlic-ginger paste: Combine the ginger and garlic in a blender. Add 2 Tbsp of water and a pinch of salt. Blend until relatively smooth, adding more water as necessary (no more than ¼ cup altogether). You will have more ginger-garlic paste than you'll need for this recipe--use the leftovers in a soup or a stir-fry, or store it in the freezer.

To make the cumin-coriander mix: Toast the seeds in a dry heavy pan (cast iron) over high heat until fragrant and slightly darker. Transfer to a bowl. Grind the seeds in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle (a coarse powder is fine).

To marinate the chicken: Melt the coconut oil over medium heat and add the chickpea flour. Stir with a wooden spoon until smooth and cook for another minute, stirring constantly like you’re making a roux (because you are). It’s okay if the roux darkens a little, but don’t let it turn brown. Transfer to a blender. Add the remaining marinade ingredients to the blender. Blend until smooth and let cool to room temperature. Pat the chicken dry and cut into large chunks of equal size. Toss with the marinade and refrigerate at least 4 hours and preferably overnight.

To make the sauce: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Blanch the tomatoes, a few at a time, for 30 seconds. Transfer to an ice water bath or run under cold water. Peel the tomatoes, cut them in half, and scoop out the seeds. Roughly chop the tomato halves.

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until softened, about 15 minutes. Add 2 Tbsps of the ginger-garlic paste and continue to sauté until the mixture dries out. Stir in the cumin-coriander mix and turmeric. Sauté for another minute, until the spices are fragrant, and then add the tomatoes, cardamom pods, salt, and ½ a cup of water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and then simmer until the onions are very soft, 45 minutes to an hour. Remove the cardamom pods and blend until smooth (see note**). Stir the cashew cream into the sauce along with the coconut milk and garam masala.

To cook the chicken: Skewer the chicken pieces and grill over high heat or broil until browned and cooked through, 10-15 minutes. Let the chicken cool for 5 minutes, then take the pieces off the skewers and add them to the sauce. Gently simmer the chicken pieces in the sauce for 10 minutes.

Garnish with chopped chili and cilantro leaves and serve with white basmati rice.

*Note: I used a Korean chili, which is a long green chili with moderate heat and mild flavor. Feel free to use a Serrano or a Thai bird chili—or more if you want the dish to be spicy.

**Note: If you’re using a standing blender for this (i.e. not an immersion blender) be very careful that you don’t let the steam trap in the blender because you will end up with a tomato explosion decorating your kitchen. I speak from experience. Either wait to blend the sauce until it cools (warm is okay), or take the cap off the lid of the blender and cover the hole with a kitchen towel or wad of paper towels while you blend the sauce. This allows the steam to escape so the pressure won’t build.


Cashew Cream
1 cup raw cashews
½ cup water

Soak the cashews in lots of water for several hours or overnight. Drain and discard the soaking water. Put the cashews in a blender with ½ a cup of fresh water. Blend on high until very smooth.


Recipe: Dairy-Free Chicken Tikka Masala

  1. You are inspiring!

    I love the tip about cooking the rice – that was one of my early fails, and it was such a downer… I thought, “If I can’t cook rice, should I even bother trying to learn the hard stuff?” I eventually got over that, so here’s my little tidbit to contribute: at least in my area, spices/seeds/pods are WAY cheaper at an Indian grocery, if you have one. Rice is, too, for that matter (if you have storage space) :)

  2. I don’t have coconut oil but I’ve been thinking of buying it for quite sometime. Does it matter if its refined or unrefined??Which one do you use?

    Not sure if I will replace my olive oil for cooking with the coconut oil. I can’t wait to try this Tikka Masala!! Sounds even better without the use of cream!

  3. Liz–Indian grocery stores are such a great place to buy spices and staples! I always get chickpea flour there to make panisses and fritters. Chickpea flour at a normal grocery store is super expensive, but you can get a big bag of besan (the same thing) at an Indian grocery store for $2.50. It’s amazing.

    Selle–I buy coconut oil at Trader Joe’s and it’s extra virgin, organic, and unrefined. It has more of a coconut flavor than others that I’ve tried, namely Spectrum. Coconut oil works great as a substitute for lard (I used it in a pie crust last week!). It also has a higher smoke point than olive oil so it’s better for frying/sauteing over a high heat. I’m still loyal to olive oil though, especially for anything raw. I hope you like the tikka masala recipe!

  4. Would LOVE to make this recipe, TRUE!
    an you please clarify HOW much re the garlic I use too?
    My understanding is that TWO bulbs; 10 cloves per bulb may seem like alot to me,
    This looks to be a great recipe dairy free!

  5. Thanks, Joanne! You won’t need to use all of the garlic paste. You’ll need 1/4 of a cup for the marinade and 2 Tbsps for the sauce. This is a bit confusing in my instructions–I’ll fix that. I hope you like the recipe!

    • G’day and BIG thanks for the clarification! I will look forward to making this soon and photographing it too! Again, thank you!

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