What’s the difference between butter chicken vs chicken tikka masala? Both butter chicken and chicken tikka masala are classic Indian dishes that have become popular restaurant favorites. While they are quite similar, they have important distinctions in terms of ingredients, spicing, and preparation methods.
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Learn how to make a streamlined, easy, tasty Chicken Tikka Masala at home. I cut out a bunch of steps and use the Instant Pot to have this dish ready in 30 minutes!
Are you craving Indian food but can’t decide between tikka masala and butter chicken? In this article, I’ll tell you the differences and similarities, and which one you may want to try first.
Chicken tikka masala and butter chicken are two popular curries at Indian restaurants worldwide. If you’re one of those people who think that chicken tikka masala and butter chicken taste the same, well, they kinda do!
People confuse the two curry recipes because many Indian restaurants use essentially the same sauce base, and so they taste almost identical.
But that’s not how it’s supposed to be. There is a difference between traditional butter chicken and chicken tikka masala. Modern variations of the recipes have made these differences less pronounced.
Main Difference Between Butter Chicken vs. Tikka Masala
Butter chicken, also known as chicken makhani, is a richer tomato, cream, and butter-based dish made with bone-in grilled tandoori chicken simmered in a thick, creamy, slightly sweet tomato gravy.
Tikka masala is also a tomato-based curry but without butter and less cream. It’s made with grilled chicken tikka (bite-size boneless marinated skewered chicken chunks) in a creamy, flavor-forward, tangy, tomato gravy.
Below is a summary of how the two dishes are different from each other. To find out more about the detailed differences and similarities, and which one you should try first, read on.
|1950s Delhi, India
|1970s Glasgow, UK
|Rich, creamy, sweeter, mildly tangy
|More tangy, more complex and bold flavor
|Paler, due to cream
|Richer, darker red
|Thicker, due to cream and tomato puree
|Thinner, due to diced tomatoes
|Cream, tomato puree, butter (ghee), fenugreek leaves
|Less cream, diced tomatoes (blended), more spices, more lemon juice
|Bone-in chicken (tandoori)
|Boneless chicken (tikka)
What is Butter Chicken?
Butter chicken, which is called murgh makhani in Hindi, is a popular Indian curry dish that was invented in Delhi, India. Grilled chicken marinated in yogurt and spices (tandoori chicken) is added to a tomato-based sauce that is flavored with butter, cream, and Indian spices.
In 1950s Delhi, a cook at the Moti Mahal restaurant was trying to figure out what to do with leftover tandoori chicken. He decided to cook it in a buttery, creamy tomato sauce, and that happy accident created butter chicken.
Butter chicken is one of the most popular foods ordered at Indian restaurants in North America and Europe. Western versions tend to add more cream and butter to suit local tastes.
What is Chicken Tikka Masala?
Chicken tikka masala is a tomato-based, tangy, creamy recipe that was invented in Britain. Tikka masala is heavily influenced by butter chicken.
It’s made with grilled boneless chicken breast pieces (chicken tikka) cooked in a smooth, creamy tomato sauce.
Legend has it that a restaurant chef in Glasgow, Scotland, invented a dish similar to butter chicken to address a customer complaint that his grilled chicken was too dry.
✏️ TANDOORI CHICKEN vs CHICKEN TIKKA
What’s the difference between tandoori chicken and chicken tikka? While the former is traditionally made with whole bone-in pieces of chicken (legs, thighs, breast), chicken tikka is a dish made with boneless skinless chicken breasts cut into small pieces and grilled on a skewer.
Chicken tikka masala is referred to as an unofficial British national dish. While you can find it in India, especially in restaurants catering to tourists, it’s not as popular on menus as butter chicken.
Some Indians perceive tikka masala as being too heavily adapted and more Western. It’s seen as more of a British invention and not authentically Indian.
Main Ingredients and Spices for Tikka Masala vs Butter Chicken
Butter Chicken Ingredients
Butter chicken recipes have many variations. Here are some common ingredients in the various types of butter chicken recipes.
- Bone-in chicken thighs and drumsticks are usually used for the tandoori chicken that is at the heart of the recipe. Many Western recipes call for boneless chicken pieces.
- Browned onions and ginger form the base of the butter chicken sauce. Some recipes use onions only in the marinade and not in the sauce. Some recipes include garlic.
- A mixture of yogurt and spices is used to marinate the chicken to tenderize it and add tanginess. You grill the marinated chicken before adding it to the creamy tomato-based sauce.
- Indian spices, including cumin, coriander, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, Kashmiri chili powder, and salt add flavor to the marinade and sauce.
- Tomato puree is usually used to create a thick sauce. It also adds a slight tanginess to the recipe.
- Ghee (clarified butter) or butter adds rich flavor and a smooth texture.
- Heavy cream also adds richness and creaminess.
- Dried fenugreek leaves impart a smoky, earthy flavor.
- Lemon juice is added in a small quantity.
- In some recipes, honey helps to balance the tanginess of the tomatoes.
Indian Curry Recipes to Try
These curries can be made in the Instant Pot or the stovetop!
- Kerala chicken curry is a delicious South Indian chicken curry made with potatoes.
- Chicken tikka masala is a popular Indian dish of boneless chicken pieces marinated in yogurt and spices and then cooked in a tomato-cream sauce to yield a flavorful, aromatic curry.
- Chana Masala is an Indian chickpea curry that’s vegan, gluten-free, and delicious. It’s a healthy dish made by simmering chickpeas in a tomato curry sauce.
Chicken Tikka Masala Ingredients
Chicken tikka masala is made with a combination of spices, chicken, tomatoes, onions, and dairy that come together to create its unique and popular flavor. Here are some of the ingredients used in many recipes:
- Bite-size pieces of boneless chicken. Chicken breast is traditionally used, although chicken thighs are used in many recipes. The chicken is marinated and grilled first.
- The marinade for the chicken tikka is made with ginger, garlic, coriander, cumin, chili powder, turmeric, garam masala, salt, lemon juice, and dried mint. Yogurt helps tenderize the chicken.
- Lemon juice adds tanginess.
- Onions, garlic, and ginger add flavor and texture to the sauce.
- Tomatoes contribute color and tanginess to the sauce. Canned diced tomatoes or fresh tomatoes are commonly used. Pulse them in a food processor or blender to make a smoother sauce. The diced tomatoes make the sauce thinner than tomato puree would.
- Similar spices as the marinade are used in the gravy. The quantity is slightly more than that for butter chicken, making tikka masala slightly spicier, but not overly so.
- Some recipes use ground almonds.
- Cream or coconut milk is used to make it creamy. The quantity of cream is slightly less than butter chicken, which makes the flavors bolder. In the UK, they use less cream than in the US.
- Fresh cilantro is used for garnish.
Butter Chicken Flavors
Butter chicken tastes silky and rich from the cream and butter. You just might feel like drinking the sauce! The spiciness from chili powder is toned down by the cream.
The classic flavors of butter chicken are rich, creamy, sweet, and slightly tangy. The hint of sweetness comes from honey (in some recipes), with a tangy note from the tomatoes, lemon juice, and yogurt.
Dried fenugreek leaves give the butter chicken a herby, earthy flavor.
Chicken Tikka Masala Flavors
Chicken tikka masala’s flavors are a reflection of the ingredients used. It has a tangy flavor from tomato paste and lemon juice.
It is more flavor-forward, notably due to less cream and no butter.
While tikka masala contains similar spices to butter chicken, it uses them in larger quantities. This gives chicken tikka masala a more intense and complex flavor.
Conclusion: Comparing Tikka Masala and Butter Chicken
- Butter chicken originated in India in the 1950s.
- Tikka masala originated in the UK in the 1970s.
- Each dish has evolved since its creation and is creamier than the original version.
- Butter chicken is much richer and creamier due to the cream and butter.
- Tikka masala has a slightly tangy, spicy flavor with less creaminess.
- Butter chicken tends to be the milder of the two because cream (and honey) tone down the spice quite a bit.
- Tikka masala is a bit spicier than butter chicken due to the fact it has less cream and it uses spices in greater amounts.
- Butter chicken has a lighter color due to the cream.
- Tikka masala has a rich, deep color from the chili powder and tomatoes.
- Butter chicken is made with grilled bone-in tandoori chicken legs, thighs, and breasts.
- Traditional butter chicken typically contains fenugreek leaves.
- Tikka masala tends to be more sour from tomatoes and lemon juice, and less cream. Tikka masala may not contain fenugreek.
- Tikka masala is generally made with chicken tikka (boneless chicken breast skewers) cooked in a spicy tomato gravy. Modern versions of the recipe tend to add more cream than the original recipe.
- Both dishes are Indian in origin.
- Both butter chicken and tikka masala have a creamy sauce, although butter chicken gravy is milder.
- You can eat both curries with naan, bread, or rice.
- Butter chicken and chicken tikka masala are fairly mild dishes and not too spicy.
- Both are very popular in the West and loved by those new to Indian cuisine. Both curries are popular restaurant dishes.
- Both dishes can be customized and made spicier or milder.
Which Should You Try – Butter Chicken or Tikka Masala
Deciding between butter chicken or tikka masala can be difficult if you’ve never tried either. Both chicken dishes are the most popular Indian dishes in Indian restaurants.
If you enjoy rich, creamy sauces, butter chicken may be more to your liking. The smooth, rich, tomato and butter sauce is flavored with aromatic spices but is mild enough for most people. It’s a great curry to try if you’re new to Indian cuisine.
If you like slightly bolder spices and more complex flavors, chicken tikka masala may be for you. The ingredients in tikka masala deliver savory tomato richness in every bite. It’s also a great choice if you’re looking for the healthier option.
In the end, it comes down to whether you prefer rich and creamy versus healthy, bold and aromatic. I encourage you to start with one and try the other so you can experience each one’s distinct flavors.
✏️ MY PERSONAL FAVORITE
- I love both curries, but I make tikka masala more often because I like that it’s healthier than butter chicken. Each serving of tikka masala can have 50 to 100 fewer calories than a serving of butter chicken.
- I like making butter chicken when I want to make a special occasion dish, and I’m not as worried about the calories. If you’re going to make butter chicken, you need to go all the way and use ghee or butter, and cream! I also find that it’s a more kid-friendly dish due to its richness and mildness.