Whenever my dad cooks for us, the aroma of all the different spices fills up the whole house. He never skimps out on the flavor and most of his food is heavily influenced by the Indian culture. So when he told me that he was making his infamous chicken tikka masala, I was extra ecstatic and blocked off my whole night for it. Now, some of you may be wondering, what is chicken tikka masala? Well, it is chunks of chicken (tikka) that is marinated in yogurt and spices and it is traditionally baked in a tandoor oven and served in a spice mix (masala) sauce. There is no one way to make the masala and you can find dozens of recipes for it, but the sauce usually consists of tomatoes, cream, and various spices. We obviously don’t own a tandoor oven so we just use the stove. We joked around that he should open up a restaurant, but I truly believe that if he owned a food truck with some basic Indian favorites, then it could be a hit.
Even though my dad is 100% Caucasian, I did not eat the stereotypical “American” food growing up. I also did not eat red meat (for the most part). I had the occasional pizza and spaghetti, but I don’t remember ever eating macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, fast food, or hot dogs for dinner. My parents emphasized the importance of eating healthy by cooking fresh home cooked meals every day. Once in a blue moon we would go out to dinner or order take out, but it was either for a special occasion or for the convenience factor. I will admit that as a child, I did not like Indian food. The consistency was always mushy to me and my taste buds hadn’t matured yet. But as I became older, the more and more I grew to love it and now Indian food is one of my favorite cuisines. Yes, it is mushy like baby food and yes, it doesn’t look appealing but once you take a bite of it your taste buds experience an enticing and tantalizing surge of flavors.
So now you may be wondering, why does your dad cook Indian food? Here is my 1 on 1 interview with my very own dad to give a little insight:
1. How did you end up in India?
I was a member of the Hare Krishna and they held annual festivals in India, in which I attended 3 times over a 4 year time period in my mid-20’s. The festivals lasted 2-3 days, but I would be there 2 weeks to a month in advance and stay for a week after the festival.
2. Who taught you how to cook in India?
The Hare Krishna group. I had daily duties as a new member which from the very beginning was working in the kitchen. I started off by washing dishes and peeling vegetables but I was good and I was fast. Eventually I was given more duties around the stove by assisting the head cook, who actually didn’t like being the head cook. I learned from him and sent him on his way and I took over as being the head cook. I cooked for 60 people every day. I followed the recipe book which consisted of about 60 different recipes; some were dahl (soups), vegetable dishes, rice dishes, sweets, or savory dishes (samosas, pakora). All of the dishes were vegetarian.
3. What is your favorite Indian dish? Why?
I actually don’t have a favorite. I like a lot of Indian dishes because they are all unique and unusual with fascinating flavor differences because of the various spices that are combined.
4. How do you prepare chicken tikka masala?
I had to resort to a recipe because I didn’t have experience with cooking meat in Indian dishes. First, I prepared the marinade by making the garlic and ginger paste which is the most time consuming process since you have to peel the ginger and garlic piece by piece. (This process can be shortened by buying the garlic and ginger paste at a market.) Then I mixed the ginger garlic paste with yogurt, salt, and pepper. I cut up the chicken into bite size pieces (I prefer to use thigh meat because it’s juicier) and tossed it with the marinade and let it sit overnight. The following day I made the sauce. In a large skillet I heated up butter, the ginger-garlic paste, and sauteed serrano peppers until they were lightly browned. Next I combined the tomato paste, tomatoes, seasonings (garam masala, paprika, etc.), and water and let that boil to draw out the flavors. Meanwhile, I pulled out the tender pieces of chicken and simmered it in a cast iron skillet. This process can be done several other ways such as a grill or smoker. I’ve used the smoker in the past and the chicken came out phenomenal! When the sauce was ready I put it in a blender until it came out smooth and then combined it with the simmering chicken . I let this sit in a pot on the stove for about an hour. Then it’s ready to serve along with some naan or jasmine rice.
5. What is your philosophy on food?
It should be fresh, simple ingredients and put together in common sense combinations where foods can accent each other. The chicken tikka masala is spicy and rich but when eaten with plain jasmine rice, you can appreciate the flavor of the jasmine rice even though it is bland and boring by itself.
There you have it. My dad undeniably has a special skill in the kitchen and I am lucky enough to be able to be the taste guinea pig. I credit my dad for his influence of food on me. He sparked my love for food by exposing me to a cuisine that is bursting with flavor, but he also emphasized to appreciate the simplicity of a dish. One of the most valuable lessons he has taught me over the course of my life was to appreciate nature and what is has to offer by eating wholesome and natural foods. He educated me on the horrors of artificial flavoring, gmo’s, high fructose corn syrup, and preservatives which has clouded our society’s judgment on what real food should really be. Thanks Dad for the awesome chicken tikka masala that we had for almost a whole week (he made a ginormous pot of it), I can honestly eat it every day! The chicken was absolutely tender and the sauce had me licking off my plate. But most importantly, thanks for teaching such a priceless lesson that healthy food doesn’t have to be boring.
(the green dish is called Saag Paneer, another one of my favorites that my dad makes from scratch!)