Tikka masala refers to a blend of spices — masala is a Hindi word for spice blend. Tikka masala sometimes refers to dishes made with the spice blend, like chicken tikka masala. Like most Indian dishes, the spices define a tikka masala dish. If you don’t have the right spice blend available, you can try using one of the tikka masala substitutes below instead.
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Your best bet: Make your own
If you want the most flavorful tikka masala blend possible, you need to buy fresh whole spices and grind them yourself. Grinding and mixing spices will almost always give you a better result than buying a premixed blend. Aside from the superior quality, you get to choose which spices you use in your tikka masala.
The standard spices include coriander seeds, peppercorns, and cardamom, but some blends will also have cloves and cumin among others. As with many Indian spice blends, a lot depends on the cook’s preferences. The downside of mixing spices is that it takes time, which you may not always have.
A decent second choice: Garam masala
Even though it originated in the north of India, garam masala has since become — arguably — the subcontinent’s most popular spice mix. Tikka masala and garam masala have many of the same ingredients in common. While there is no one standard recipe for either spice blend, they both use the same warm and aromatic components. Peppercorns, coriander seeds, and cumin tend to show up in both blends and these spices all work well in the same dishes.
Use garam masala as a tikka masala substitute in the distinctive tomato-based gravy of chicken tikka masala. Garam masala has the advantage of being a relatively easy ingredient to find in most well-stocked grocery stores and in any store that specializes in Indian foods. The only real downside of buying a premixed blend is that you don’t get full control over the flavor profile the way you would if you had made it yourself.
In a pinch: Tandoori masala
The spice blend known as tandoori masala is formulated for use in a tandoor, which is a kind of clay oven. Tandoori masala plays a major role in the flavor profile of butter chicken, which is the Indian dish that is said to have been the main influence on the invention of chicken tikka masala. According to its origin story, butter chicken was invented to use up the remaining marinade after making tandoori chicken. Cooks combined the marinade with butter and tomato to make a sauce. This means that tandoori masala was the precursor for tikka masala.
Typical tandoori masala ingredients include Kashmiri chilies, cardamom, and fenugreek seeds. Tandoor masala is more flavorful and can be hotter than the typical tikka masala spice blend; the higher spice level may be an advantage for some people but a drawback for others. The main drawback to using tandoori masala is finding it. You may have a hard time finding it anywhere outside of Indian grocery stores.
Curry powder has a lot in common with tikka masala, which was also made in an attempt to sell Indian food to people in the UK. While the spice blends are not the same, they are close enough to work as substitutes. Ingredients that tend to show up in both spice blends include turmeric, coriander, and cumin.