Tikka masala and garam masala are two widely available spice blends used in Indian and Indian-style dishes. Understanding how they compare can help if you are trying to pick one to use in a dish. The SPICEography Showdown below can help with the comparison.
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How does tikka masala differ from garam masala?
Tikka masala and garam masala refer to different things. Tikka is a Punjabi word loosely translated to mean pieces — in this context, it probably refers to pieces of meat — and masala means a blend of spices. Garam translated from Hindi means hot, so garam masala means hot spices. Garam masala may include chili peppers, but that’s not what the word hot indicates here; instead, hot refers to the toasted spices. You toast the spices to release their oils and make them more flavorful.
Tikka masala and garam masala can have different ingredients. The ingredients lists for both blends can change depending on the cook’s preferences. Garam masala’s components can vary a lot depending on where you are in India. Some recipes for tikka masala will include garam masala as an ingredient. One common difference between most tikka masala and garam masala blends is that tikka masala often includes fenugreek and turmeric, while garam masala usually has neither.
Different ingredients give tikka masala and garam masala different flavor profiles. Cooks can adjust each blend to suit personal regional tastes, and they may also adjust them to pair better with certain ingredients. In general, garam masala focuses on sweet and earthy notes while tikka masala may focus on sweeter spices or include fenugreek leaves, which give the blend a pungent note similar to that of curry powder.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
Tikka masala might not be a good substitute for garam masala if it has fenugreek in it. The reason is that Fenugreek is usually cooked, but garam masala is traditionally sprinkled on last-minute as a finishing spice without cooking it. The uncooked fenugreek flavor might be too harsh.
Garam masala can make a good substitute for tikka masala, since it has most of the same flavors. You can add sweeter spices or fenugreek to make it more like tikka masala.
When should you use tikka masala? And when should you use garam masala?
Traditionally, tikka masala is used for dishes where the spice blend is simmered in a sauce or gravy consisting mostly of condensed tomato soup. Tikka masala is an attempt to replicate the butter chicken dish that uses tandoori spices, but it is a milder version meant for UK restaurant patrons.
Aside from that, its flavor profile is complex and versatile enough that you can use the spices as a dry rub for grilled meat or as an ingredient in your dry rub. Use tikka masala to season vegetables before roasting them and to add flavor to salad dressings.
Use whole garam masala spices to flavor your cooking oil. Warming the spices by lightly frying them infuses the oil with their flavors. You can toast and grind some more of the same spices and sprinkle them over the finished dish to boost the flavors before serving. The process of flavoring the oil and then adding ground spices at the end works for curries and other dishes that require garam masala. You can use garam masala as a dry rub and as a seasoning for popcorn.