When you think of Indian food, chances are you picture a bowl of either Butter Chicken or Tikka Masala. Both are incredibly popular Indian curry dishes that you might find on the menu of Indian restaurants, made with pieces of chicken swimming in a vibrant red sauce. This article will help explain the difference between the two most popular Indian recipes, Butter Chicken and Tikka Masala, so you can feel confident ordering out!
While the two dishes may look similar on the exterior, and often get confused by those unfamiliar with Indian cuisine, the flavor, ingredients, and cooking method behind Butter Chicken and Chicken Tikka Masala are very different.
Butter Chicken is rich, creamy, saucy, and complex while Tikka Masala is bold, spicy, and tangy. While both are delicious, it’s helpful to be able to tell them apart so you can order, or make, the dish your palate would prefer.
What is Tikka Masala?
Tikka Masala is made with just about any meat in a spicy tomato-based sauce. The most popular meat to use in this dish is chicken.
This dish originated in northern India where leftover Tandoori chicken was marinated in a powerful blend of spices like turmeric, garam masala, coriander, cumin, cardamom, and black pepper, and then stewed in a tomato and yogurt sauce.
When the dish was adopted by the British, the amount of creamy curry sauce in the dish was increased, to create a creamy tomato gravy with a unique taste that could be poured over rice and scooped with naan.
The tomatoes in the sauce give it a slightly sweet flavor while the spices give it a kick of heat.
What is Butter Chicken?
Butter Chicken, also known as murgh makhani, is also a curry dish made with a tomato and yogurt-based sauce but it also contains a generous amount of butter and cream, blended into the sauce until smooth and creamy.
The flavor of Butter Chicken is much richer and creamier than Tikka Masala with significantly less heat as well. It’s really the level of creaminess that sets this dish apart from Tikka Masala. The rich sauce still contains a mix of spices but the heat is significantly reduced thanks to the key ingredient–cream.
While both dishes were inspired by Indian cuisine and are still popular there today, it was really outside of India that they became famous.
Tikka Masala was really made popular in Britain and some believe it may have been created in London. The exact origin of Chicken Tikka Masala is difficult to say, but many believe it was made by an Indian chef trying to appeal to British people. It must have worked because today the dish is considered the national dish of Britain and is one of the most popular Indian dishes.
Butter Chicken has been more popular in the United States, appealing to a crowd that was interested in curry flavor without the curry spice. In India, the dish goes by the name murgh makhani but it was a restaurant in New York that first called it Butter Chicken.
At a quick glance, you may not notice a big difference between these two dishes. They are both saucy, and bright and have bits of chicken mixed in.
Once you know a bit more about the dishes it becomes easier to spot them right away. Tikka Masala is bright red and usually has some small chunks of tomatoes and onions.
Butter Chicken has heavy cream and butter blended into the sauce, giving it a lighter color and creamier appearance. The sauce is often blended until smooth giving it a noticeably creamy texture. The chicken pieces may also be shredded.
The ingredient list for these two dishes is somewhat similar.
Both contain common ingredients like:
- Tomatoes or tomato paste
- Spices like: Cinnamon, garam masala, turmeric, ginger, cumin, red chili powder, garlic and salt.
One of the key differences in the ingredients is the amounts of each. Butter Chicken contains heavy cream while Tikka Masala may contain more peppers and cayenne. The plain yogurt makes it a slightly creamy sauce but not nearly as creamy as the creamy tomato sauce in Butter Chicken.
“Tikka” means grilled or roasted, and this title can be given to any type of meat. Chicken Tikka Masala is usually made with fresh boneless chicken marinated in the sauce and then grilled on skewers to give it a smokey, chargrilled flavor.
The chicken may be breast meat but could also be thighs or leg meat.
Butter Chicken is almost always made with chicken breast meat grilled in a tandoor or clay oven. The chicken is marinated for several hours or even overnight to ensure the marinade penetrates the skin and tenderizes the meat. Butter Chicken was first created as a way to use leftover chicken meat.
The tender cooked meat is then cut into nuggets or shredded for Butter Chicken.
The main and most obvious difference between the two dishes is the taste of the final product.
Tikka Masala has a bold flavor. It’s mostly tomato at first and then the spices come into play. Tikka Masala isn’t considered a very spicy dish but it definitely packs a mild but delicious kick.
Butter Chicken has a creamy and rich flavor. The meat is also grilled but the cream takes the edge off any spice or chili pepper in the marinade.
Both dishes usually include tomatoes, onions, garlic and ginger but the different chilies used and the lack of cream in Tikka Masala have a big impact on the overall flavor of the dish.
Just the name Butter Chicken should tell you which dish is often considered healthier. The cream and butter in Butter Chicken mean it also has more fat and calories.
Both dishes contain a good amount of protein and in general, chicken can be considered a healthier option than other meats.
If you are interested in making either of these dishes healthier I would recommend using coconut milk rather than heavy cream and serving it with plenty of veggies.
Neither of these dishes are particularly “healthy” but they can still be enjoyed in moderation.
Both of these dishes are delicious and served over a bed of white rice with a side of butter naan bread to help soak up all the leftover sauce. You could serve them with cauliflower rice and skip the naan for a healthier option and also supplement the meal with plenty of cooked vegetables.
There is no set definition of curry. Curry is any meat cooked in its own marinade (like this Japanese Curry Recipe). In that way both Tikka Masala and Butter Chicken are considered curry.
More traditional chicken curry is spicier than both of these dishes and uses more oil, rather than the creamy yogurt used in Tikka Masala and Butter Chicken. Tikka Masala recipes are often considered a mild to medium curry.
Tikka Masala was most likely created in Britain but the origin is Indian. The flavor profile is more in line with Indian cuisine and was likely created by an Indian chef attempting to bring the two cultures together through food. It worked! Tikka Masala has become a very popular British dish.
Butter Chicken is mostly sweet but it is also mildly spicy. It contains all the earthy flavors of the spices and the smoky flavor of chicken cooked in a tandoor oven, but it is perfectly balanced with plenty of butter and ghee.