The Indian curry is such a British favorite, the UK celebrates National Curry Week and has adopted curry as a "national dish", with more than 9,000 Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi restaurants and the creation of British-Asian dishes, such as chicken tikka masala. Like many great dishes, the exact origins of chicken tikka masala is a subject of spicy debate, and it’s unlikely we will ever be entirely certain as to who first came up with the idea of smothering tandoori chicken in a rich, tomato gravy.
Some describe chicken tikka masala as meek and mild, a creamily inoffensive curry. But done well, chicken tikka masala is absolutely delicious, and a decent curry is one of the things I miss most about the UK. I could try and cook it myself, but with only one Indian spice shop near Sanlitun Village South, it’s a feat in itself finding all the ingredients. I also don’t own a wood or charcoal-fired tandoor (clay or metal oven) in which to cook the chicken.
For those of you unfamiliar with the true delight that is a chicken tikka masala, let me describe it. The chicken is first marinated in spices, which generally include a sour element, usually lemon juice, and a dairy product such as yoghurt or cream, both used to tenderize the meat, plus copious amounts of ginger and garlic. The dish is spiced with paprika, which also adds that wonderful vivid red color, cumin, chilies, coriander, garam masala, and turmeric. The sauce should be savory with tomatoes, but with a hint of sweetness too; rich without being overtly creamy; and moderately spiced, rather than fiery. That is how it should be anyway.
In need of a Friday night curry fix, I decided to put two Shunyi Indian restaurants to the test, and try out their take-out versions of the classic chicken tikka masala. The first restaurant was The Taj Pavilion, which has been serving authentic Indian food across Beijing for 16 years, specializing in Northern and Southern Indian delicacies, followed by Kanchan’s Kitchen which serves a range of curry’s, grilled tandoori meats, and a great selection of vegetable dishes.
As all curry lovers know, an Indian take-away would not be complete without a starter and some sides. The starter has to be onion bhaji. The onion bhaji was probably my first introduction to the joys of Indian food as a kid back in the late 80s. The word "bhajia" means fritter – in fact, they’re just one small part of the wider pakora family, which encompasses all manner of things fried in chickpea batter. At their best, they’re almost ethereally light and addictively crisp. At their worst, they’re stodgy and bland.
As well as a side of steamed basmati rice, you’ll need something else to mop up all that wonderful sauce. A bread of some description is required. I think the pan-fried paratha goes best with drier curries, and the thin roti bread complements tandoori kebabs. For a tikka masala, you can’t beat a naan. Not one that’s been stuffed with all manner of things, such as the fruity peshwari naan, with its raisins and cashews, to me an unholy marriage of sweet and savory. Keep it simple with a plain naan. The final dish to make the meal complete would be something with a great depth of savory flavor, such as a lentil or chickpea dal. It needs to be creamy and satisfying, real comfort food in a small bowl.
So how did the restaurants fare? Kanchan’s onion bhaji dish consisted of large pieces of bhaji, with soft onions, and a crisp yet delicate batter holding everything together. The wonderful flavor of coriander came through perfectly, a great version of the bhaji. The Taj Pavilion’s bhaji came as strips of onion, coated in a soft batter. A great balance of flavor from the coriander and delicate spices, but for me it was not crispy enough.
Taj Pavilion’s chicken tikka masala was a wonderful creamy, spicy dish, with that fabulous smoky tikka flavor coming through every bite of chicken. The chicken was tender, in bite size pieces, and there was plenty of it. The sauce was packed full of tomatoes, smooth onions, and lots of ginger. Kanchan’s masala had a superb thick base of onions and plenty of ginger, with a sharper tomato sauce. Whilst the chicken pieces were tender, large, and plentiful, they were lacking the flavor and aroma you should get from a tikka dish.
The black lentil dal’s from both restaurants were very good indeed. Kanchan’s version was creamier, and had a smoother texture, but both packed a punch with plenty of fresh chilies. The naan bread from Taj Pavilion was grilled in the tandoor, and had a lovely buttery flavor. Its texture was tighter than Kanchan’s version, but both had great flavor and offered up the perfect accompaniment. For me, the stand-out dishes were Taj Pavilion’s chicken tikka masala and Kanchan’s onion bhaji, and for a fleeting moment one Friday night, I was transported back to our local British curry house.
beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent Sally Wilson moved to Beijing in 2010 from the UK with her husband and son. Her daughter was born here in 2011 and both her kids keep her happily busy. In her spare time, Sally loves to stroll through Beijing’s hutongs and parks. She is a (most of the time) keen runner and loves reading: books, magazines, news, and celeb websites – anything really. Sally is also a bit of a foodie and loves trying out new restaurants.
Photos: Sally Wilson