More British than Indian (it’s regarded by some as the national dish of England), chicken tikka masala begins with tandoori chicken, where the skinless bird has been marinated in a spiced yogurt sauce, then cooked in the tandoor (a clay oven) until juicy and smoky. Tandoori chicken in and of itself is a wonderful dish, but Chicken tikka masala takes it one step further, by simmering it in a sauce made of onions, tomatoes, and cream (or yogurt). The dish is known for its safety-cone-orange color, usually from turmeric and paprika in the sauce, but sometimes because of added orange food coloring. Some restaurants will give the tikka masala treatment to lamb or even beef, but chicken is the O.G. protein.
Butter chicken is the classic Indian truck stop dish that’s as straightforward as it sounds: Chicken gets cooked in a tomato and butter gravy (or literally just butter) until the meat is fall-off-the-bone soft. Butter chicken will often look very similar to chicken tikka masala; the difference is that tikka masala has more of a complex, layered flavor from the spices, while butter chicken tastes like, well, butter, with a milder, sweeter gravy.
Vindaloo is a south Indian dish with many variations. The version you’ll likely see in an Indian restaurant will include some kind of meat base cooked with red chilies, vinegar, garlic, and sometimes potatoes. In India, the dish is known for its unmitigated spiciness. But at your neighborhood Indian joint, chances are the heat has been tamed. Unless you ask for it.
The name tells you everything you need to know: Chana = chickpeas. Masala = spices. Chana masala, which happens to be a very popular street food in northern India, consists of boiled chickpeas that have been cooked in a tomato-onion gravy. A special feature of chana masala is that the spices in it are often over-toasted—this is what gives the most flavorful versions of the dish its dark hue and deep roasted flavor.