The Curry House      UK Curry Scene

we taste supermarket Chicken Tikka Masala
10th December 2006
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.

the contenders
supermarket price weight ingredients do all those ingredients come together to look like the picture on the carton?
Asda £1.98

(on offer- £1.58)
350g yes but you'd have to spoon sauce over the pale chicken to get the full effect
Marks & Spencer £3.79 350g looks very similar to the picture except there's no garnish of coriander leaf (that's a "serving suggestion")
Morrisons £2.99 350g the curry looks better in real life than in the picture
Sainsbury's £2.75 400g shows off the chicken well but where's the sauce?
Tesco £1.98 350g the sauce is nowhere near as richly red as in the picture
Waitrose £3.29 400g the way the picture is lit makes the curry look darker than it really is

the tasting
what's on the carton

what they say what we say
Asda Chicken Tikka Masala

"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
Marks and Spencer Chicken Tikka Masala

"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.

Morrisons Chicken Tikka Masala

"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.

Sainsburys Chicken Tikka Masala

"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.

Tesco Chicken Tikka Masala

"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 the marinade.

Waitrose Chicken Tikka Masala

"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 sauce.

the verdict

pros cons price per 100g result
Asda It's cheap It tastes cheap 57p
(on offer - 45p)
Marks & Spencer Great barbeque taste to chicken Bland appearance 108p 2nd   2nd
Morrisons Excellent taste and texture to the sauce Chicken merely OK 85p 1st   1st
Sainsbury's Lots of good looking and tasty chicken Sauce is milky and too garlicky 69p also-ran
Tesco Chicken flavourful and tender Sauce tastes like spicy tomato soup 57p also-ran
Waitrose Chargrilled chicken is delicious Overly spiced 82p 3rd   3rd

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.

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© 2006 David W Smith