The origins of chicken tikka masala are controversial, to say the least. Whole countries lay claim to the dish and long-standing lore has perpetuated a muddy genesis at best. The short story is this: A man walked into a restaurant called the Shish Malal in the 1970s and ordered the chicken tikka, which he claimed to be dry. An irked Bangladeshi chef, in order to satisfy the quintessentially British hankering for gravy on everything, dumped a can of tomatoes, spices and yogurt on top, and voila! Chicken tikka masala as we know it was born. Again, this is hearsay. There are entire books dedicated to the origins of this crimson concoction.
Chicken tikka masala has more iterations than pimento cheese and evokes the same patriotic fervor. In town, Copper Indian Cuisine on East Boulevard makes a velvety smooth version that your mouth will want to claim for itself.
Served with airy puffs of naan, the chicken tikka masala can be ordered as the lunch express or the murgh tikka masala at dinnertime. Copper takes no shortcuts when it comes to making the dish. Chicken is cut into bite-sized chunks, or tikka, and marinated in a combination of hand-ground spices and yogurt, which tenderizes the chicken before it is cooked inside a tandoor oven, the cylindrical clay vessel where food is slapped against the searing hot walls of the oven and cooked in temperatures upwards of 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
The secret, however, is in the sauce, otherwise referred to as “the love sauce” by Copper regular Joe Haubenhofer, who says he eats the stuff like a pregnant woman. Copper takes the time to grind whole spices to create the masala spice blend, which is combined with ginger, garlic, tomatoes and onions for a sauce that maintains a flavor as vibrant as the signature red color of the dish. Bits of chicken are smothered in the sauce, and once you run out of naan, don’t be surprised if you’re looking for something, anything (a sock, maybe?) to sop up the remains.
Look under the Traditional Lunch Express at lunchtime for the chicken tikka masala ($11.91) and order the Murgh Tikka Masala at dinner ($17). Copper is located at 311 East Blvd.
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