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7 Apr

Primal Chicken Tikka Masala

There’s nothing better than successfully re-creating your favorite restaurant dish at home. Especially when your homemade Primal version tastes every bit as good as the less-healthy version on the restaurant menu. Mark’s Daily Apple reader Jillian McCabe spent years tweaking her Chicken Tikka Masala recipe so that it tasted just like the one served at her favorite Indian restaurant. When she and her husband Matt started the 21-Day Total Body Transformation, she found it surprisingly simple to turn the dish into Primal Chicken Tikka Masala. There’s no naan or rice served with her version (although you could serve it over steamed, grated cauliflower “rice”) and instead of cream or yogurt, she now uses coconut milk. “This dish will make your home smell divine,” says Jillian. And she’s right.

Chicken Tikka Masala is a staple in many Indian restaurants. Boneless chicken is typically marinated in spices and yogurt then baked, broiled or grilled and simmered in a creamy tomato sauce heavily laced with spices. The spices don’t necessarily make the dish spicy-hot, although they can. Jillian’s version doesn’t seem spicy at first, but a slow burn starts catching up with you by the end of the bowl.

This recipe is made in two steps. The chicken bakes in the oven while the sauce simmers on the stovetop, then the two are combined. If you’re tempted to start eating the chicken right when it comes out of the oven, it’s understandable. Incredibly moist, deeply flavorful and bathed in a shimmering coconut milk sauce, it could be a meal on its own. However, adding the chicken to the thick tomato-based sauce creates a bowl of rich, aromatic Chicken Tikka Masala that will have you coming back for more – which is fine, because this recipe makes a big batch. Plan to serve it to friends, or freeze some for another meal.

Chicken Ingredients:

  • 6-8 boneless/skinless chicken breasts cut into bite size pieces
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro, finely chopped (bottom stems cut off)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 4 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
  • 4 tablespoons finely chopped or grated fresh ginger
  • Small pinch cayenne pepper (or more, for a spicier dish)
  • Generous pinch of salt (you can add more to the sauce later, if needed)
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Combine all the ingredients in a large baking dish. (The spices can stain pans, so Jillian uses a disposable lasagna pan.)

Bake the chicken, covered, for 1 hour.

While the chicken is baking, make the sauce.

Sauce Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 2 yellow onions, sliced thinly
  • 6-ounces tomato paste (or less, for a less tomato-y sauce)
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 28-ounces canned/boxed crushed tomatoes in their juice
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon garam masala (an Indian spice blend)
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric


In a large, deep pan over medium heat sauté the onions in the olive and coconut oil until golden brown, about ten minutes.

Add the remaining ingredients, mix well, and let simmer 20 minutes, stirring often.

When the chicken has finished baking, add it to the sauce on the stovetop. Simmer for 20 minutes.

Serve in bowls alone or over cauliflower rice.

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Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Nice recipe! What would be the macro breakdown for this?

    Zsolt wrote on April 7th, 2012
    • One hour seems quite long for boneless chicken pieces. Still juicy after the long bake at 400F?

      Joyce wrote on April 18th, 2012
  2. “The spices can stain pans, so Jillian uses a disposable lasagna pan.”

    Oh, FFS. That is so wasteful and ridiculous. I’ve never had a problem with any spices staining my pans, and even if they did stain, why would it matter?

    Don wrote on April 7th, 2012
    • …then you’ve never used potent turmeric 😉

      NorthernMonkeyGirl wrote on April 7th, 2012
      • why not use glass, like pyrex? nothing stains that.

        Recipe sounds so yummy, I’ll be making it soon :)

        K wrote on April 7th, 2012
        • I agree, I use turmeric in my glass pan all the time and it has never stained it.

          Casey wrote on April 8th, 2012
        • There’s pans that AREN’T Glass? O.O I’ve ALWAYS cooked in glass!

          Ghost wrote on April 12th, 2012
      • Indeed I have! I’ve used a lot of colorful spices as well as other colorful ingredients (e.g. beets and berries) and it’s never been a problem with staining any of my cookware. What type of cookware are you using that’s so porous?

        Don wrote on April 8th, 2012
      • best way to get rid of haldi (turmeric) “stains”…put your cup, glass dish, tuperware, etc in the sun for some time!! my parents have been doing this for years!! the sun essentially sucks the stains out (or burns them, if you will)..

        Ritesh wrote on April 16th, 2012
    • Exactly what I was thinking as well. That’s kind of the *point* of pans isn’t it?

      JohnC wrote on April 9th, 2012
    • 2055: “If only Jillian didn’t use those six extra disposable pans per year, California might still be above sea level.”

      R wrote on April 10th, 2012
      • Okay, you have shamed me. I got the memo. I bought some Pyrex. I get it. Focus on the recipe; it’s good stuff. :)

        jillianmccabe wrote on April 11th, 2012
      • Gary Larson, remember him? lol

        Marion wrote on April 22nd, 2012
    • I use a glass pan with potent turmeric, and it comes right off. In my cast iron skillets, no matter how much I scrub, the next couple of things I cook will have a little turmeric color and flavor, but it never bothers us. It will stain your counters if you have any drips but if you just leave a drop of bleach over the stain after you’ve wiped the counter, overnight, it comes off easily. I recommend getting a glass pan so you don’t have to waste disposable ones.

      Daria wrote on April 11th, 2012
    • I see your point that having a turmeric seasoned pan wouldn’t hurt and is probably perfectly normal in India. It might impart a flavor to other dishes so you could just dedicate it to curry friendly recipes. :)

      Michael B wrote on April 27th, 2012
  3. Yum yum yum!

    Molly wrote on April 7th, 2012
  4. This sounds like a dish my mother would make (I’m indian). Delicious. Have to try the cauliflower rice out though.

    Suhail wrote on April 7th, 2012
    • Me too! So good to see home food our mothers make on the primal list!! 😀

      catharine wrote on April 8th, 2012
    • Try cardemon rice from a littlentoo lazy to look up the link…but it is delish with any indian-ish dish….nom nom nom….

      carol wrote on February 23rd, 2013
  5. Thinking I will try this in my crock pot! One of my very favorite Indian dishes!!

    Heather wrote on April 7th, 2012
    • How’d you do this? Dump everything together raw, and simmer on high for 8 hours?

      With a 3 month old in the house, I’m looking for good, Paleo crock pot recipes.

      Jeff wrote on April 9th, 2012
      • Crock pot curries can be done, but you need to prefry the spices else it tastes a bit bland.

        johnnyv wrote on April 9th, 2012
  6. I’m always working on my cooking skills, okay make my primal food taste even better, this recipe is definitely going to be added to my arsenal. Thank you!

    Alby wrote on April 7th, 2012
  7. When you say 1 can of coconut milk, how much is that in grams(g) or millilitres(ml)?

    Mac wrote on April 7th, 2012
  8. Mac,

    In the U.S., the coconut milk I buy comes in two sizes: 400 ml, and 700 ml. My guess is that since the recipe author is an American and didn’t specify the size, the can is 400 ml.

    jake3_14 wrote on April 7th, 2012
  9. It is a holiday long weekend here in Australia and all the shops are shut, however I happen to have all the ingredients for this in my fridge/pantry/freezer/fruit bowl…so this will be dinner tonight + extra for leftovers! Brilliant, thank you :-)

    Simone wrote on April 7th, 2012
  10. Ooooh, I love Indian food! That looks great! Thanks for sharing!

    Deanna @ TheChangingHouse wrote on April 7th, 2012
  11. Looks awesome! *drool*

    Taryl wrote on April 7th, 2012
  12. This sounds awesome. I would like to use unsweetened coco milk instead, do you think that would ruin the recipe? Also how much is 1 can…1 cup?

    Bobert wrote on April 7th, 2012
    • I’d say around 330ml (11oz) would be a fair “can”

      Brent wrote on April 7th, 2012
    • Unsweetened coconut milk is exactly what the recipe calls for so you are good. 1 can is approximately 2 cups; I use a 400ml can, which is 13.5 FL. OZ. Enjoy :)

      jillianmccabe wrote on April 8th, 2012
      • Thank you for clarifying that. One of my pet peeves is recipes that call for one can or one package, forgetting that these sizes are not standard in time and space.

        I’m looking forward to trying this recipe; it looks wonderful.

        Janet wrote on April 11th, 2012
    • This recipe is delicious! Made it on my birthday a few weeks ago. One of the best tikka masalas I’ve ever had. Thanks so much for posting this recipe!

      butterfieldbass wrote on August 2nd, 2012
  13. I saw this recipe this morning and just had to make it for dinner. It is really yummy. The chicken was great just out of the oven and to die for after simmering in the sauce. I used a glass baking pan and agree that the tumeric will not stain glass. Our cast iron skillet was also safe. This recipe is a keeper!

    Pixiloo wrote on April 7th, 2012
  14. Curry is my favourite thing in the universe – you have won my heart with this!

    Audrey H wrote on April 7th, 2012
  15. This looks FANTASTIC. This is for a day when I’m alone during the weekend to spend time cooking with all those lovely ingredients and scents, and then to bring it to a party and be told I’m a complete goddess.

    Joy Beer wrote on April 7th, 2012
  16. Just made the dish tonight! If you enjoy Indian food, it will not disappoint! Very good. I have 6 meals left over after my wife and I had dinner. I love making dinner from scratch and then not having to prepare lunch for the next week!

    Jeffre wrote on April 7th, 2012
  17. A family favorite. Interesting background…

    “Tikka Masala is a popular Indian curry dish that can be ordered in restaurants around the globe. The actual origins are disputed, some people claiming it comes from India and others saying that it was created in an Indian restaurant in London. Regardless of its origin, however, it is so popular in England that it is sometimes considered Britain’s national dish.”

    Paul wrote on April 7th, 2012
  18. Hi MDAers! I’m glad everyone likes the recipe; I am honored that is has been added to the site. I will definitely use Pyrex from now on in lieu of the disposable lasagna pans.

    On Coconut milk; I use the 400 ml size or 13.5 FL. OZ. My favorite brand is “Chaokoh.”

    I just learned how to make my own coconut milk from organic shredded coconut by following this video:

    Have a lovely weekend!

    jillianmccabe wrote on April 7th, 2012
    • Thanks for the great recipe!!! Healthful and delicious.

      Daria wrote on April 11th, 2012
  19. This looks wonderful!!!!

    Joanne - The Real Food Mama wrote on April 7th, 2012
  20. Would boneless skinless chicken thighs work as well? I simply don’t care for chicken breast. Reminds me too much of my flavorless, low-fat diet days.

    Fritzy wrote on April 7th, 2012
    • Yep, and bone-in thighs too. If i was going to use thighs i’d leave the bone in for added flavour.

      greg grok wrote on April 8th, 2012
    • Yes…thighs are much nicer…not so dry as breasts.

      Joy Termorshuizen wrote on February 12th, 2013
  21. Dear Mark / Guys,

    I had been doing a 80/20 primal diet for the past 7 months, with great results on weightloss. But that’s about all the benefit I got (not that it isn’t important, it is a great deal for me). The bad part is, although Fitday pointed out I was nutritionally optimal, my period stopped for 7 months and I was constantly craving bread and sugar like mad. I finally had it and destroyed 2 large bagettes and 1 liter of ice cream. My period came back the following day and I felt so soo happy. How do you guys maintain a healthy primal diet without driving your minds and bodies insane? Can we really change years of conditioning to eating bread and rice every day and not feel deprived? Really need some encouragement. Thanks!!

    Marcela wrote on April 8th, 2012
    • Before I knew about Primal ‘Proper’ I tried going carb-free and the longest I got was about two weeks. I nearly passed out after doing heavy cardio in the pool, felt dizzy standing, ate crisp rice bread (toxic in more ways than one) and had so many health issues though at the time I thought I was at peak fitness and health. Long story longer, it took literally 5 years to come off a LOT of junk gently, note each change and benefit, to the point where even four months ago I’d crave soaked, sprouted, dehydrated, ground and fermented buckwheat flour pancakes every few days, which was the last dodgy carb to go. Now the very idea makes me feel gross in the belly region and fuzzy in the head.
      Really long story short, take it easy man! Everyone’s different, don’t beat yourself up in the head or the body. If you know the ‘rules’ you’ll figure it out at your own pace.

      ces wrote on April 8th, 2012
    • Keep going!!!! This happened to me at first while I adjusted! I think that you had the cravings BECAUSE you were due, NOT because you caved and ate the crap food. Stick with it! I think its just your body adjusting at first with the weightloss an stuff, after all, it is all hormones rebalancing. STAY WITH IT!!! good luck.

      Yasmin wrote on April 8th, 2012
    • I’ve had similar experience and kept searching for something similar to Primal or along the lines or Paleo and Primal and discovered The Perfect Health Diet. I added some safe starch (like potatoes and rice) back into my diet, while still eating the Primal way and feel much better, more energetic and yes, happier. I guess I need more starch (the key is SAFE starch) than others, and keep away from eating grains, gluten, sugar, seed oil and all of the ‘banned’ foods. Good luck. Sometimes we need to keep searching what is optimal for one’s body and health. Sticking religiously to one principle of eating method/diet may not be the best solution, that at least I found out for myself.

      TokyoMum wrote on April 8th, 2012
    • Marcela, I wonder if you are getting enough healthy fats in your diet? I ask only because I went through a few months without a period during university, and it was because I had cut my fat consumption down severely. As soon as I started eating fats again, my cycle began to return. It took several months before it seemed “normal” again.

      I’ve found that, when I’m really craving ice cream, I can shut that craving up with an avocado. I think it satisfies the body’s craving for something fatty, as well as the mental craving for the texture of ice cream — ripe avocado has a silky, luxurious texture.

      Maggi wrote on April 10th, 2012
  22. I just don’t understand , these recepies and diets looks all the good and healthy…but can you tell me how this applies to people who suffer from gout (my case) or any degenerative kidney disease? It looks like we don’t qualify for primal diets then…

    pedro wrote on April 8th, 2012
  23. Wowzer! Definitely going to make it soon and eat it with basmati lemon rice! Thank you!

    TokyoMum wrote on April 8th, 2012
  24. When you add the chicken to the tomato sauce, do you also add in all the sauce in which the chicken has been cooking along with it?

    DeftTitan wrote on April 8th, 2012
    • Yes, you add everything in your baking pan to the sauce and let it simmer together. :)

      jillianmccabe wrote on April 8th, 2012
    • I had the same question….anyone know?

      Stef wrote on April 8th, 2012
      • we made this last evening, and only put the chicken in with the stove-top sauce to simmer. there was a lot of liquid remaining in the baked chicken, which we discarded, knowing it would take very long to boil down.

        i would also recommend going a bit lighter on the tomato ingredients. i found the recipe to be acidic, and i might suggest some extra fat or cream to cut it. (or am i thinking of korma/butter chicken?) :)

        Car47 wrote on August 21st, 2012
  25. If you really want this dish to have that restaurant/authentic taste add just a little bit of kasori methi :)

    Janey wrote on April 8th, 2012
    • Is that fresh fenugreek leaves? Or can you tell me what to look for? If you have any other helpful hints please share! Thanks!!

      Daria wrote on April 11th, 2012
      • Yes, I think that’s what it’s called in English. And the only other suggestion is that I prefer this dish more creamy. In the photos this dish resembles more of a “korma” which is fine too. Depending on how Paleo you are you can use Greek yogurt or heavy cream to get that creamy feel. Or coconut cream. Oh, another suggestion is to use butter instead of olive oil. Have you heard of the dish Butter Chicken? They are pretty much the same thing!

        Janey wrote on April 18th, 2012
  26. I had everything in my kitchen except 6 chicken breasts, but I did have a beef pot roast thawing in my refrigerator. I made this using beef, but I didn’t want tough meat, so I cut it into strips and instead of baking, put it in a crock pot on low for 12 hours. The beef shredded really nicely on its own when I added it to the tomato-based sauce, and became a really nice dish. I think I would prefer it with chicken, but it’s what I had… You Indian food lovers don’t strike me down with verbal lightning or anything. And yes, I’m sure you could do it with goat.

    DeftTitan wrote on April 8th, 2012
    • It would probably work with flip flops.
      Although i’d recommend for beef try a dhansak. There’s a recipe here but probably best looking for one without lentils if you dont eat them, so it’s primal-ised.

      greg grok wrote on April 8th, 2012
      • LOL, hey leave my flip flops alone… go eat something else… very funny greg…

        Zorbs the Aussie wrote on April 8th, 2012
  27. I love tikka masala! I’m so happy to have this recipe. Though, personally, I’ve avoided Indian food because I knew I wouldn’t have the strength to resist ordering naan. I did love me some naan. Haha. But using cauliflower rice is a good idea. And I definitely am a fan of recipes that make lots of leftovers!

    Sandra R wrote on April 8th, 2012
  28. I’m thinking this could be made with beef too?

    Melissa wrote on April 8th, 2012
  29. I was just thinking that any meat could be transformed using this recipe.Lamb would be great too.

    Mary Titus wrote on April 8th, 2012
  30. This looks like an awesome recipe. I’d serve it over raw spinach though – it goes well with curries. Cauliflower rice is good too, but without a food processor it’s a pain to make.

    Milthra wrote on April 8th, 2012
    • That sounds good (the spinach). Sarah Fragoso’s recipe for baked curry cauliflower in Everyday Paleo is really, really easy–it’s easier than making cauliflower rice, but like rice, it can soak up the sauce and tastes really good.

      Daria wrote on April 11th, 2012
  31. Try adding a cinnamon stick and a few 3-5 whole cardamom pods to the oil for a couple of minutes until fragrant and then remove and continue with frying the onion. Also add a couple of table spoons of almond flower to the sauce at the end a couple minutes before you remove it form the heat. But I would only add the almond flour if you are going to puree the sauce.

    pixlee wrote on April 8th, 2012
  32. Looks yummy! Could this be crockpotified? Seems like it wouldn’t loose too much flavor by not baking the chicken…perhaps browning the chicken or onions first, then adding it all together and cooking all day?

    Alyssa wrote on April 8th, 2012
  33. Can you do this with a whole chicken, and if so what adjustments would you make?

    Sean wrote on April 8th, 2012
    • Hiya, I have been making this for years and everyone loves it but on the stove top. I fry the onion and garlic and ginger till golden add the spices and fry for a min, The ratio of spices I add to the browned onion garlic ginger is 1 tsp each of tumeric, cummin, paprika, salt and 1 tablespoon of coriander powder and chilli to taste. Then I add a tablespoon of vinegar and stir for 1 min more then put in a whole chicken cut into small portions and coat well. Add 2 fresh chopped tomatoes and the cinnamon stick and 6 bruised cardammon pods and a stick of lemon grass or 2 thick slices of lemon rind and put the lid on and leave it to simmer for 40 min. It makes its own liquid. Then add 250 mls of thick coconut milk and let it simmer with lid off to reduce and make a thick sauce. You can add more salt and lemon to taste, Add spinach at the last minutes of cooking and fresh coriander and serve as is or over cauliflour rice…. .. Its so good to see something I’ve loved for years presented in a different way….This was called in my Indian recipe book Kukul Mas Sri Lankan Curry.

      Zorbs the Aussie wrote on April 8th, 2012
      • Oooh, I have all this except the lemongrass, I am going to give it a shot tonight. A bit less fussy than the other one, and i have some home grown toms that need eating,

        Heather wrote on April 9th, 2012
        • No wurries and let me know how it goes…

          Zorbs wrote on April 9th, 2012
  34. I cannot wait to try this. It looks delish. I recently gave your Tender Prime Rib Roast with Mushroom and Bacon Sauté recipe a try and it was very good, although my all time favourite is still the Savoury Roasted Pumpkin with Beef Short Ribs. The sauce for that is amazing.

    Tom Parker wrote on April 9th, 2012
  35. Chicken Tikka is very delicious dish.For knowing different kind of Chicken dishes check this link.

    Neopim wrote on April 9th, 2012
  36. This is at the last stage of simmering on the stove now – multiple tastes so far are saying this recipe is a winner!

    Liz wrote on April 9th, 2012

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