Oh, chicken tikka masala: most Anglo of curries, disdained by seekers of the authentic, worldwide starter Indian dish. No one can agree on exactly where CTM — as it is nicknamed — was invented. The preparation of grilled chicken chunks in a spiced tomato gravy may be descended from Mughal cuisine — after all, protein in a rich sauce is common in Northern India — or it may have been invented in Scotland, as some maintain; or it might have been dreamed up by a Bangladeshi cook trying to accommodate an English customer’s request for “gravy” with a can of cream-of-tomato soup. Or the truth might lie in some combination of those genesis stories. In any case, although you can find the dish in India, it’s much more British than Indian — mildly and simply spiced, often lashed with great quantities of cream. The worst are gloppy, tasteless messes; the best are comforting, well-spiced, and unctuous.
The truth is, almost everyone enjoys a good chicken tikka masala, even Desis and food snobs. Two new South Asian street food carts have hit the streets this summer — Famous Dal Cart and Desi Food Truck — and both serve the dish. We tried them both to see which one came closest to CTM perfection.
Famous Dal Cart parks on 32nd Street at Park Avenue on the northwest corner, bedecked with flower garlands. It offers, obviously, dal, as well as chicken tikka (that’s just the grilled chicken without the sauce), chicken tikka masala, and naan. Rice and pickle come with every order. For $4.99 one can obtain the combo plate, which includes a simple mung bean dal, rice, a cashew pickle, and chicken tikka masala.
Famous Dal Cart’s CTM is very substantial, a layer of orange oil glistening atop the pungent masala. It tastes vibrantly of cumin, chile, garlic, and bitter fenugreek. The bite-sized bits of chicken thigh are tender and moist; the peppery sauce clings to each piece. If the sight of oil makes you faint, you won’t like this version, but others will find it reassuringly rustic, exuberantly spiced, and satisfying, especially when mixed with the rice and tart pickle.
Down on 27th Street at Fifth Avenue, the Desi Food Truck is colorfully painted and plastered with photos of Bollywood stars like Aishwarya Rai and Shilpa Shetty. It offers a number of dishes, including chicken curry, “Indian breakfast” (spiced potatoes with eggs), paneer masala, dal, a lamb dish, and several others. Here, the chicken tikka masala costs $5 and comes with rice, a few slices of tomato, and lettuce.
Sadly, this CTM was made with white meat, which had dried out and shredded in its sauce. The gravy itself is tasty enough, but lacks spice — tomato, a hint of cumin, salt, and the barest tickle of heat are the only determinable seasonings. Certainly, it tastes lighter and healthier than its counterpart at Famous Dal Cart, but that is not enough to recommend it.
Desi Food Truck may assume that only non-Desis who don’t like much spice of any kind will order chicken tikka masala, and its other dishes may be far better. But in the battle of the CTM, Famous Dal Cart wins handily.