When I heard that the 2006 British Curry Awards were going to include a new category for supermarket meals I was intrigued what the outcome would be. I had this fanciful notion that they were all made by Noon in their Southall factory and were just squirted into different packaging at the end of the process. How on earth would the judges be able to choose between them?
As soon as I received the press release announcing that Best Supermarket Main Dish had been awarded
to Asda for their Chicken Tikka Masala I rushed out to buy one. The first thing I noticed was that Asda proudly display their "Winner" status on the packaging. And why shouldn't they? It's a prestigious award to have won. The only problem is that, in my view, it didn't deserve to win the award either as the best curry or even as the best Chicken Tikka Masala.
I was so disappointed by the Asda curry that I decided to organise a tasting session for myself. I collected together own-brand Chicken Tikka Masala from the “big 4” British supermarkets (Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Tesco) plus the 2 national supermarkets who compete on quality rather than price (Marks & Spencer and Waitrose). All the curries were heated in a microwave according to the instructions on the packaging.
The winner was something of a surprise. Here's our report.
||do all those ingredients come together to look like the picture on the carton?
(on offer- £1.58)
||Onion, cooked marinated chicken breast (28%), [Chicken breast
(95%), palm oil, tapioca starch, salt, turmeric, garam masala
[Coriander seed, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, chilli
powder, mace, star anise, turmeric, basil], chilli powder], water,
single cream (9%), tomato purée, tomatoes (3%), sugar,
yogurt (1%), butter, vegetable oil, modified maize starch,
coriander, spices, tandoori paste [Water, garlic, cumin, salt,
colour (Cochineal), coriander, ginger, chilli, citric acid,
acidity regulator (Sodium acetates), turmeric, rice flour,
tamarind], salt, garlic purée [Garlic, salt, citric acid],
ginger purée, desiccated coconut, fenugreek, cumin seeds,
mint, colour [Paprika extract], chilli powder, mustard seed oil,
malt vinegar, bay leaf, concentrated lemon juice [Lemon juice,
preservative (Sodium metabisulphite)].
||yes but you'd have to spoon sauce over the pale chicken to get the full effect
|Marks & Spencer
||Cooked Marinated Chicken (40%),
Single Cream (25%), Onions, Yogurt, Tomato Paste, Vegetable
Oil, Spices, Water, Fresh Coriander, Garlic, Ginger, Salt.
Cooked Marinated Chicken contains
Chicken (84%), Single Cream, Vegetable Oil, Yogurt, Salt, Fresh
Coriander, Spices (Garam Masala, Ground Cardamom, Mace), Garlic,
Ginger, Lemon Juice, Paprika Extract.
Spices contain (Coriander, Paprika, Cumin Seeds, Chilli Powder,
Ground Cassia Bark, Green Cardamom, Whole Black Peppercorns, Black
Cardamom, Bay Leaves, Garam Masala (Black Cardamom, Coriander,
Cumin, Black Pepper , Cinnamon, Cloves, Mace, Green Cardamom,
Ground Ginger, Ground Fennel Seeds, Nutmeg, Ground Bay Leaves),
|looks very similar to the picture except there's no garnish of coriander leaf (that's a "serving suggestion")
breast (35%) (chicken breast, yogurt, vegetable oil, paprika,
ginger, garlic, green chillies, garam masala, chilli powder,
fenugreek), Cream single (20%), Onions (9%), Tomatoes (6%), Water,
Onion purée, Tomato purée, Yogurt, Garlic, Ginger,
Vegetable oil, Unsalted butter, Honey, Cashew nut purée,
Coriander powder, Tandoori masala (contains colour (paprika
extract), citric acid) Ground almond, Paprika. Fresh coriander,
Cumin powder, Chilli powder, Salt, Turmeric, Cardamon powder,
Cumin seeds, Fenugreek.
||the curry looks better in real life than in the picture
||Marinated Chicken Breast (52%) (Chicken Breast, Water, Low Fat
Yogurt, Potato Starch, Dextrose, Salt, Dried lemon Powder, Paprika
Extract, Coriander), Onion, Single Cream (13%), Double Cream
(12%), Low Fat Yogurt (5%), Tomato Purée, Rapeseed Oil,
Coriander, Ginger Purée, Garlic Purée, Cornflour,
Garam Masala (Contains Celery), Lemon Juice, Salt, Cumin,
Fenugreek, Sugar, Paprika Extract, Chilli Powder.
||shows off the chicken well but where's the sauce?
||Marinated Chicken (49%), Onion, Single Cream (17%), Yogurt,
Tomato Purée (6%), Vegetable Oil, Ground Cashew Nuts,
Spices, Garlic Purée, Ginger Purée, Coriander
(0.7%), Sugar, Salt.
Marinated Chicken contains: Chicken Breast, Water, Spices,
Tomato Purée, Ginger Purée, Cornflour, Maize Flour,
Coriander, Garlic Purée, Salt, Cumin Seed, Mustard Powder.
|the sauce is nowhere near as richly red as in the picture
||Masala sauce (60%), cooked chargrilled chicken (40%)
Masala sauce contains single cream (34%), onion purée,
tomato purée (12%), water, yogurt (9%), cashew nut purée,
rapeseed oil, fresh chopped coriander, garlic purée, ginger
purée, sugar, salt, paprika, ground coriander, ground
cumin, garam masala, turmeric, chilli powder
Cooked chargrilled chicken contains chicken breast (82%),
yogurt, rapeseed oil, paprika, ginger purée, garlic purée,
green chillies, garam masala, chilli powder, fenugreek
Garam masala contains coriander, cumin, cinnamon, ginger,
chilli, black pepper, clove, nutmeg, cardamon, bay leaf
|the way the picture is lit makes the curry look darker than it really is
|what's on the carton
||what they say
||what we say
|"tender pieces of marinated chicken breast in a medium hot
creamy curry sauce with yogurt, tomatoes and chilli"
||Before you even cook the curry you can
see that there are chunks of chicken sitting like the white cliffs of
Dover in an orange sea. The marinade has done nothing to cheer up the
bland whiteness of the chicken. The next thing to strike the wrong
note is the overbearing smell of fenugreek both before and after
cooking. The sauce has been partly thickened with a starchy thickener
rather than thickened purely with puréed vegetables (onion,
garlic, ginger, tomatoes) and/or ground nuts. So the sauce displays
an unfortunate gloopy texture which is a pity because Asda's was the
only curry to contain some crunchy coconut which, in my view, is
essential in a good Chicken Tikka Masala. The chicken tastes like it
was roasted rather than marinated and the sauce is very sweet which
contrasts badly with the excessively strong spicing. This was the cheapest
curry we tested and it shows.
|Marks & Spencer
|"marinated chargrilled chicken breast in a rich and creamy
masala sauce, finished with fresh coriander"
||Definitely one of the top contenders but,
being the most expensive, it ought to be. Before cooking, the
Chicken Tikka Masala smells warmly spicy and rich. On cooking it gets
better. The spices smell even more aromatic (they're obviously using a good
garam masala) and a pleasant smell of ginger comes through too. The
chicken tastes like it was barbequed and has a tang of lemon. The
lemon on the chicken contrasts well with the rich creamy sauce. The
sauce is quite thick but it's achieved by the use of puréed
vegetables which gives an authentic texture. The taste of green
cardamon pods shines through the richness of the sauce. Let
down a little by its somewhat bland appearance.
|"tender pieces of marinated chicken breast in a rich creamy
tomato sauce flavoured with cashews, almonds and aromatic spices"
||I am going to admit a pre-tasting
prejudice here but I fully expected Morrisons' curry to come out well
down with the also-rans. Supermarkets who compete largely on price
have to use cheaper ingredients don't they? Well, yes, but
Morrisons are not competing on price in this instance. Their curry,
at 85p per 100g, works out at second most expensive behind
Marks and Spencer's but the curry re-pays your investment with interest.
Before cooking, the sauce smells of gently spiced tomatoes and cream.
On cooking it transforms into a
spicy treat. The marinated chicken tastes good if not outstanding but
it is the sauce that stands out. I could have sworn I tasted that all important coconut
but the list of ingredients reveals the nutty taste and texture to be puréed
cashew nuts and almonds. The taste of tomatoes is noticeable but they are
thoroughly cooked unlike so many supermarket ready meals where
the tomatoes give a sharp, acid note. The tomatoes are offset by the
cream and the flavour of green cardamon breaks through all that
richness. The sauce is thickened only with puréed vegetables
and nuts and displays attractive red flecks of oil.
|"marinated chicken breast in a delicately spiced creamy tomato
sauce, flavoured with coriander"
||The first thing you notice about
Sainsbury's Chicken Tikka Masala when it comes out of the microwave
is that the sauce is very runny. The pieces of chicken are swamped by the sauce
which is quite an achievement because this curry has the highest
proportion of chicken out of the 6 we tested (52%). Uncooked, the
sauce smells of tomato and cream but, when cooked, a strong smell of
garlic is noticeable. Unfortunately, that garlic smell turns
into the flavour of barely cooked garlic on tasting the sauce.
There's worse to come. That nice creamy smell has gone and the sauce
tastes milky rather than creamy. The chicken pieces taste good and
the marinade gives them an attractive orange colour. Although the sauce
is runny it looks interesting and is decorated with flecks of green herbs.
|"marinated chicken breast pieces in a medium spiced creamy
tomato sauce with coriander"
||In our example the sauce had separated
in it's container into liquids and solids leaving some of the chicken
pieces swimming and some drowning. But cooking and stirring the curry
soon rectified that. Unfortunately, the cooking and stirring could
not stop the sauce tasting like a spiced-up Campbell's cream of tomato soup. Now
I know there's an urban myth that Chicken Tikka Masala was first
invented by a British Bangladeshi chef who, when his chicken tikka
had been returned to the kitchen by an English customer who demanded
SAUCE, quickly made up a sauce of tinned tomato soup and Asian herbs but
I don't think Tesco should be taking that route! By far the best thing about Tesco's
Chicken Tikka Masala is the chicken itself. The chicken is supremely
tender and has a melting texture and a roundly spiced flavour from
|"tender pieces of chargrilled chicken breast in a rich, aromatic
tomato sauce made with cream and yogurt - warmly spiced with
subtle flavours of coriander and garam masala"
||I am a regular shopper at Waitrose but
had stopped buying their curries. It's not that Waitrose curries are
poor it's just that I have found them no better than cheaper
alternatives. It was a pleasant surprise therefore to find that their
Chicken Tikka Masala is definitely one of the top contenders. The
uncooked curry has a tantalising smell of barbeques and tomatoes.
When cooked, the sauce is creamy and rich with tomatoes and the chicken
pieces retain that chargrilled appeal. No one spice dominates but,
to my taste, the spicing is way too strong for a Chicken Tikka Masala. The
texture of the sauce is a well balanced combination of smooth
vegetable purées and crunchy ground nuts. The sauce looks the
part too with its red flecks of oil decorating the grainy deep-orange
||price per 100g
||It tastes cheap
(on offer - 45p)
|Marks & Spencer
||Great barbeque taste to chicken
||Excellent taste and texture to the sauce
||Chicken merely OK
||Lots of good looking and tasty chicken
||Sauce is milky and too garlicky
||Chicken flavourful and tender
||Sauce tastes like spicy tomato soup
||Chargrilled chicken is delicious
|the view from The Curry House|
If the contenders had been made in the same factory then it would have been on different production lines with different ingredients and to different recipes. No two were the same.
I have come to despair of supermarket curries ever tasting like their restaurant equivalents. They all seem to have that half-raw onion taste that only a factory can provide and most of them have too many odd ingredients to taste anything like a decent restaurant curry. But this tasting did show up some promising new developments.
Congratulations to Morrisons for their winning effort. It shows that a good curry can be produced in a factory if the ingredients, method and recipe are right. I bought another Chicken Tikka Masala from Morrisons after the tasting and thoroughly enjoyed it for an evening meal.
The two "quality" supermarkets, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, did well as expected and it's no surprise to me that the 3 best curries were the 3 most expensive. I have to say that I was a little surprised that Marks & Spencer didn't win especially as their curry costs 27% more than Morrisons. If only you could take the Marks & Spencer chicken and combine it with the Morrisons sauce - I'd pay 50% more for that combination.
I can certainly think of one more reason to shop at Morrisons now.