A dish like Chicken Tikka Masala is actually an example of how one or two simple changes can transform the meal’s nutrition. Don't worry though - you don't need to compromise on that all important ‘yum’ factor.
Combining lean pieces of chicken with a mild creamy sauce, Chicken Tikka Masala actually has its roots in Britain. It was probably invented by a Bangladeshi chef seeking to appeal to the Western palate. But whatever its history, there’s no denying the dish’s popularity.
On the face of it, you might be forgiven for thinking that an Indian dish, especially one served in a thick sauce, must be calorie laden and inherently naughty. Well yes and no. Find out what nutrition this meal provides and how it can be improved.
Good nutrition, and tasty too
If you look in the recipe books for chicken tikka masala, prepare to be bewildered as you’ll be hard pressed to find two recipes the same. Add to that the fact you can get this dish at the local Indian restaurant or takeaway, from the supermarket shelves or cook it yourself from scratch and you can see that making a precise nutritional analysis is pretty much impossible.
However, it is possible to look at different components of the meal and by doing this, it soon becomes clear what options are available for increased nutritional value. As its name suggest, chicken tikka masala actually consists of bite sized chunks of tikka chicken, marinated and cooked in the tandoor which are then added to and served with a masala sauce. Like most Indian recipes, this dish is generally served with rice.
How does the nutrition measure up?
Like all meats, chicken is an excellent source of high-quality protein but, unlike some, chicken (especially breast) is also very low in fat – an ideal choice for replenishing hungry muscles without consuming a heap of empty calories. Chicken also supplies a good helping of micronutrients, especially the B vitamins and a number of important minerals such as zinc and iron.
Supplies the all-important carbohydrate component of the meal. If you go for plain boiled rice, there’s very little fat. Pilau rice on the other hand supplies a significant portion of calories as fat. Unfortunately, almost all rice served in restaurants and takeaways is the less nutritious white variety, but this can easily be substituted for the higher fibre, healthier wholegrain version.
Although it’s undeniably tasty, this can be the fly in the ointment in regard to nutrition. Many commercially prepared sauces are very high in non-essential fat – neither good for waistlines nor for training and recovery. On top of that, salt content can be very high too. On the plus side, sauces can provide a healthy slug of protective phytochemical antioxidant protection. The rule of thumb here is simple – it’s perfectly possible to have a delicious, low fat, antioxidant-rich sauce, but the only way you can be sure of getting it is to make your own.
Improving Chicken Tikka Masala
At the restaurant
You’re pretty limited here, although by selecting plain rice over pilau rice, you’ll be ditching some of the hidden fat. Masala sauces can be rich in oil, but it’s hard to know how much has been added simply by looking. If you suspect that your dish is very rich, pick out the chicken chunks and use the sauce sparingly. Alternatively, you can try a different restaurant – better prepared recipes will contain more herbs and flavourful spices with less oil.
From the takeaway
If you’re having a takeaway, there’s a very simple way of dramatically boosting the nutritional quality of this meal. Order the main course, but ditch the white rice substituting it instead with home-cooked wholegrain brown rice. You’ll not only enjoy a delicious nutty taste, but you’ll also boost the nutrient levels – in particular the B vitamins and a number of minerals like magnesium, zinc and manganese. You’ll also be adding valuable fibre which is lacking in the standard dish. If you go for organic wholegrain rice, you may enjoy an additional nutrition boost.
From the Supermarket
Again it’s best to cook your own wholegrain rice, but thanks to food labelling legislation you can look at the fat contents of the ready prepared meals and jars of sauce and avoid the oilier options. Check too the sodium (salt) contents. The better Chicken Tikka Masala varieties use more herbs and spices and so rely less on salt for flavour. They'll provide better nutrition and be less of a hindrance to your overall diet.
If you’re more adventurous, you can cook this dish in your own kitchen. There are loads of recipes out there, and provided you have the right herbs and spices to hand you can rustle up this dish in less than 30 minutes. Many (but not all) of the recipes include a fair amount of butter, cream or oil. Either select one of the lower fat recipes, or you can reduce the amount of fat while increasing the ratio of herbs and spices you add at the worktop. The advantage of home cooking is that you have complete control.
Making it nutritionally complete
Chicken tikka masala prepared with lean chicken in a low-fat sauce containing fresh herbs and spices provides fairly good nutrition. Served on a bed of wholegrain brown rice provides a near perfect blend of protein and carbohydrate with little fat . This makes it ideal for hard working bodies.
As good as it is though, there are a couple of nutrition shortfalls. The first being calcium content which is relatively low. This is easily remedied by serving the meal with a good dollop of low-fat natural yoghurt on the side. You'll find this a perfect complement to the dish anyway.
The second main shortfall is the level of vitamin C. Vitamin C as a nutrient is really only found in significant quantities in fresh fruits and vegetables. If you’re grabbing a takeaway or ‘off the shelf’ meal, the best addition would be to serve with a side salad. Be sure to include vegetables such as tomatoes and capsicum, which are rich in vitamin C. If you’re preparing your own dish, you could simply slice some tomatoes and capsicum. Either add in during the final stages of cooking or serve fresh on the side. After all, part of the beauty of chicken tikka masala is that it can be almost anything you want it to be.
Chicken Tikka Masala Nutrition Verdict
With wholegrain brown rice and low-fat sauce – very good.
Training and Recovery
Very good (especially with a lighter sauce). Plenty of high-quality muscle-fuelling carbohydrate and muscle-building protein
With wholegrain rice – good although for a better balance, needs more calcium and vitamin C
Antioxidant Protective Effect
Good – especially if the sauce is prepared with lots of fresh herbs and spices
NUTRITIONAL CONTENT OF WHOLE GRAIN VS WHITE RICE
Source: AUSNUT 2011-2013 Food Standards Australia New Zealand