When transitioning from a picky eater to my less-than current state, there were a number of "gateway" foods that led me into enjoying cuisines I normally would have shunned. For Indian food, that item was chicken tikka. It's easy to understand why—these boneless chicken chunks marinated in a fairly mildly spiced-yogurt sauce and then cooked in a tandoor were on the spectrum of the usual type of chicken I enjoyed, just with a slightly different flavor profile. It was my go-to at any Indian meal for a long time, but I can't even remember anymore the last time I ordered chicken tikka, or any tandoori chicken for that matter, as I've found more pleasure in dishes like spicy vindaloo or creamy saag paneer. Still, there will always be a fond place in my heart of chicken tikka, and developing a recipe for it recently brought back some comforting memories.
While the end flavor of chicken tikka is mellow compared to a lot of other Indian dishes, the marinade still required a fair amount of spices. It started with a plain yogurt base with a hearty amount of lemon juice, which adds a freshness and slight tang. Then came the spices and other items—garlic, ginger, cumin, paprika, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, and salt.
These combined to create a pale yellow marinade, but the chicken tikka I know and love is almost always bright red. The most surefire way to get that intense hue is by using red food coloring, but I tend to like natural coloring better, even if they aren't as bold. So I opted for annatto powder here, which transitioned the mixture from yellow to an orange-red.
Next up came the chicken, and my preference nowadays would have been chicken thighs, which are more favorable to hot grilling conditions by not drying out as quickly as chicken breasts do. Still, I was drawn to make this from memories, and those were formed by large chunks of white meat, skinless, boneless breasts, so I opted to go that route...this time around at least.
I married the chicken and marinade together in a Ziploc bag, sealed, and let the chicken marinate for about eight hours. The high amount of acid from the lemon juice here makes a super long marination not ideal as it can turn the meat a bit mushy over too long a period of time.
While the chicken was marinating, I whipped up a cucumber-mint raita for dipping at the end. My hope was that my chicken would be moist and delicious and not in need of help from a sauce, but this raita helped me balance out a lot of dry chicken tikkas in the past, so it has become part of the overall experience I was set on recreating. This is a simple sauce that's quick to put together, combining yogurt, cucumber, mint, cumin, salt, and a little cayenne.
Once done marinating, I threaded the chicken onto the wider, flatter skewers I own to help them stay put and not rotate as they're turned during cooking. Normal bamboo skewers are fine here, and if you're looking for some additional support and stability, you can always use two skewers in parallel instead of one.
The usual process for cooking chicken tikka is to rest the skewers in a tandoor—a clay oven whose temperature can get up past 900°F. For the closest simulation immediately available to me, I employed my grill with an entire chimney of freshly lit coals all piled together. This got me up around 700°F, which is respectable. This high heat grilled the chicken fast, but not so fast that there was great fear that overcooking would happen too quickly—this was largely thanks to the large cubes of chicken used. It was probably around 10 minutes total for the chicken to reach between 150-155°F in the center, at which point I pulled them off and let the skewers rest for 5 minutes before digging in.
This tikka was both comforting and surprising. The form and overall flavor was familiar, but this home version tasted fresher, more vibrant, and juicier than memory served. It lacked that deep red color, but that didn't mean it wanted for flavor at at all, having pronounced notes of earthy cumin, tart lemon, sharp garlic and ginger, and a slight heat. The moist meat itself needed no crutch, but the raita was a welcome accompaniment, providing complimentary flavors with and an added boost from the creamy yogurt. All-in-all it was a successful attempt at a fond memory, but there's a reason I've relegated chicken tikka to the past as more interesting items dominate my imagination these days, and this tikka ended up fulfilling one of those—chicken tikka kati rolls....but that's a story for another day.
- Yield 6-8 servings
- Prep 20 Minutes
- Inactive 4 Hours
- Cook 10 Minutes
- Total 4 Hours 30 Minutes
- For the Cucumber-Mint Raita
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 1 cup coarsely grated seeded hothouse cucumber
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint leaves
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- For the Chicken
- 2 cups plain yogurt
- 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice from 2-3 large lemons
- 2 tablespoons finely minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons finely minced ginger
- 2 tablespoons ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon annatto powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 3lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes
- Bamboo or metal skewers
- 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
- 1 bunch of cilantro, roughly chopped
- To make the raita: In a medium bowl, mix together yogurt, cucumber, mint, cumin, salt, and cayenne pepper. Place in refrigerator for at least 2 hours, and up to three days, to chill and let flavors meld.
- To make the chicken: In a large bowl, whisk together yogurt, lemon juice, garlic, ginger, cumin, paprika, salt, coriander, turmeric, annatto powder, and cayenne pepper. Place chicken in marinade, cover, and refrigerate 4 to 8 hours.
- Thread chicken onto skewers so each piece is just barely touching the next.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over entire surface of coal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Grill chicken, turning occasionally, until well browned on all sides and center of meat registers between 150-155°F on an instant read thermometer, about 10 minutes total. Transfer skewers to platter and let rest for 5 minutes. Serve immediately with red onions, cilantro, and raita.