FOOD AND DRINK / How to pick a pukka chicken tikka: It's everywhere. But is it good? And above all, is it authentic? Michael Bateman and a team of experts set out in hot pursuit of the perfect Indian ready-made meal

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The Independent Culture
ARE ALL the supermarkets in the country going out of their tiny tikka minds? There is hardly a corner of their food counters which hasn't been invaded by this Indian interloper.

At Waitrose, you can buy Chinese spring rolls stuffed with Indian chicken tikka; at Sainsbury, Greek pitta bread with chicken tikka filling. Waitrose also sells Italian tortelloni stuffed with chicken tikka, while Safeway has done a terrible mischief to the staple of Naples, selling frozen chicken tikka pizza, no less. If the Mafia ever gets to hear of this . . .

This plethora of cross-cultural nonsense is only the tip of the tikka iceberg. You can also buy chicken tikka-flavoured crisps (everywhere) and chicken tikka sandwiches (almost everywhere) and tikka-flavoured Hula Hoops. At Sainsbury they will sell you a chicken tikka jacket potato and chicken tikka bread, while Safeway sells vegetable tikka masala and tikka- flavoured cooked meats.

Tikka-flavoured, indeed. To an Indian, the word 'tikka' doesn't describe a flavour at all: it's a morsel, such as a piece of chicken, taken off the bone. Very well; we've all come to accept that tikka is shorthand for 'tandoori chicken tikka masala'. And why should supermarkets worry about semantics when Indian foods, especially those with the tikka prefix, are on a roll? At the current growth rate, says research organisation Mintel, sales of Indian ready meals / snacks will top pounds 200m this year.

Chicken tikka is also something of a phenomenon in its native land. It originates in the Punjab region in North India, where the chicken has always been cooked whole and comes out of its clay oven looking like Tessa Traeger's picture on this page. When distinguished hotel restaurants in India started to introduce tandoori ovens in the late 1960s, the style met with wider recognition. Since these were top-drawer hotels, it was a natural step to take meat off the bone for customers: hence the name tikka, used to describe spicy, succulent pieces of boneless, yoghurt-marinated chicken.

Tandoori cooking surfaced in Indian restaurants in Britain (predominantly run by people from Bangladesh) in the 1970s, but it wasn't until 1986 that Marks & Spencer hit on the idea of getting it on to their shelves.

What should we expect from a chicken tikka? I put the question to Namita Panjabi, who owns Chutney Mary in Chelsea, an Indian restaurant which prides itself on cooking authentic dishes from at least five regions.

Tandoori chicken, says Ms Panjabi, should be moist and succulent, having been marinated in yoghurt which tenderises it and gives it an acidic flavour. Before roasting, the chicken pieces are spread with a masala (Indian for an aromatic spice mixture) paste; it usually includes cumin, cloves, cinnamon and coriander, ground and roast. Alternatively, they are fried first in ghee or oil to temper them, cooking out their sharp, raw flavours.

How good are the ready-made chicken tikkas sold at the supermarkets? We asked Ms Panjabi to help taste Indian supermarket meals at Westminster College of Catering along with senior lecturer Graham Leedham, some Asian students, as well as several British curry-freaks. Our main purpose was to taste some 17 chicken tikka ready-made dishes, but we also tried other Indian chicken and vegetable dishes.

The overall conclusion was that ethnic foods are not taken seriously enough by the supermarkets. The worst fault was a failure to cook the spices thoroughly, so they came out raw and sharp. As the tasting progressed, the very worst dishes left burns which just couldn't be washed away. It would be a terrible punishment to make certain product managers eat nothing but their own curries.

BEST CHICKEN TIKKAS

First: Tesco's Chicken Tikka Masala. Seven out of nine judges put it among their top three. Comments included: 'Succulent chicken, lovely texture, velvety, creamy, good taste, light, harmonious spicing, nice combination of flavours, rich colour.' 400g, pounds 2.99.

Second: Sainsbury's Chicken Tikka Masala. Three judges made it first choice. 'Succulent, good consistency, nice sour notes.' 340g, pounds 2.89.

Third: Sainsbury's Chicken Tikka. 'Dry, hot, tasty, nice spicing.' 340g, pounds 2.75.

Fourth: Tesco's Chicken Tikka Masala (Healthy Eating). Four of the nine judges rated it. 'Dry, mildly spiced, sweet.' 250g, pounds 1.99.

BEST CHICKEN CURRIES

First: Waitrose Chicken Patya. Easily the highest score in the category, with three panellists ranking it first. 'Rich, spicy, sweet, interesting, but not authentically Indian.' 340g, pounds 2.45.

Second: Sainsbury's Chicken Korma. Four judges put it in their top three. 'Full flavoured, consistent.' 300g, pounds 2.49.

Third: Waitrose Pasanda. (Two firsts.) 'Moist, delicate, lovely smell and texture.' 340g, pounds 2.55.

BEST VEGETARIAN CURRIES

First: Marks & Spencer's vegetable curry. 'Fresh, wholesome, crispy vegetables, good sauce (but not integrated).' 10oz (285g), pounds 1.75.

Second: Sainsbury's Onion Bhajia. 'Nice flavour, sweet, a bit stodgy.' Six for pounds 1.99.

Third: not awarded.

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