Tandoori chicken is a popular Indian dish made by marinating chicken in a yogurt-based spice mix called tandoori masala, and then cooking it in a high-heat clay oven known as a tandoor.
The distinctively flavored and brightly colored tandoori chicken is beloved around the world, but the signature tandoori masala powder can be difficult to find outside of Indian grocery stores.
What is Tandoori Masala?
Tandoori masala is a blend of spices used to flavor meat, seafood and vegetables in Indian cooking. It is most famously used as a marinade for tandoori chicken, but it can also season tandoori shrimp, paneer and many other foods.
The hallmark of tandoori masala is its vibrant red color and complex aroma. The red color primarily comes from Kashmiri red chili powder, while the aroma is created by a mélange of warm and fragrant spices.
Some of the main ingredients in tandoori masala are:
- Cumin: Provides an earthy, nutty aroma
- Coriander: Imparts a lemony, citrusy flavor
- Garam masala: A blend of spices like cinnamon, cardamom and cloves that gives a sweet aroma
- Turmeric: Adds earthiness and a vibrant yellow color
- Paprika: Boosts the red color and adds a hint of sweetness
- Cayenne or chili powder: Brings heat and a reddish hue
- Ginger and garlic: Offer pungency and spice
- Amchoor powder: Made from dried mangoes, gives a tangy flavor
- Fenugreek: Has a slightly bitter, maple-like taste
When these spices are combined, they create a complex masala with savory, sweet and spicy notes. Tandoori masala powders can vary somewhat based on regional styles or individual recipes, but these core ingredients create its universally beloved flavor profile.
Key Takeaway: Tandoori masala is a vibrantly red, aromatic spice blend used to flavor foods like tandoori chicken. It contains spices like cumin, coriander, garam masala, turmeric, paprika, cayenne, ginger, garlic, amchoor and fenugreek.
Why Substitute for Tandoori Masala?
There are a few reasons you may need to use a substitute for tandoori masala powder:
- It's not readily available where you live. Tandoori masala can be difficult to find outside of Indian specialty stores.
- You ran out. Once opened, tandoori masala powder loses its freshness after a couple of months. If you don't use it often, yours may have gone stale.
- You want to experiment. Trying different spice blends can yield fun new flavors. Substitutes make it easy to customize your tandoori chicken.
- Dietary restrictions. Some commercial blends contain ingredients you want to avoid, like garlic or chili. Substitutes let you personalize a masala to your needs.
- Cost. Purchasing a single-use spice blend can get expensive. Making your own substitute from spices you already have is very affordable.
Luckily, with a little spice rack ingenuity, you can craft flavorful tandoori masala stand-ins using common ingredients.
Best Tandoori Powder Substitutes
Here are the top recommended substitutes for replicating the taste of tandoori masala powder:
1. Garam Masala Plus Spices
Garam masala is a foundational spice blend in Indian cuisine. It shows up in many masala recipes, including tandoori masala powder.
The main difference is that garam masala lacks the vibrant red color and heat that make tandoori masala so distinctive. However, with the addition of a few spices, you can easily convert garam masala into an excellent tandoori substitute.
To make tandoori masala using garam masala:
- Use a 1:1 ratio of garam masala to the tandoori masala called for in your recipe
- Add a pinch or two of cayenne pepper for heat
- Mix in a dash of paprika for color
- Add powdered ginger and garlic for pungency
Garam masala contains many of the same warm, aromatic spices as tandoori masala, like cumin, coriander, cloves, cinnamon and bay leaf. With a boost of heat and color, it makes a seamless stand-in for tandoori spice blends.
2. Tandoori Chicken Masala
Many spice companies sell masala blends specifically for making tandoori chicken. With names like "Tandoori Chicken Masala" or "Punjabi Tandoori Masala," these commercial mixes are designed to flavor chicken in the classic tandoori style.
Pre-made tandoori chicken masalas contain the necessary spices like cumin, coriander, garlic, ginger and red chili powder. While the blends vary between brands, they are formulated to give an authentic tandoori flavor.
When substituting one of these masalas for tandoori masala, you can typically use a 1:1 ratio. Since tandoori chicken masalas are created specifically to replicate tandoori flavor, they make an effortless substitute in any tandoori dish.
3. Tikka Masala Powder
Tikka masala powder is another Indian spice mix that shares much in common with tandoori masala. It is used to make chicken tikka, a dish similar to tandoori chicken but with smaller pieces of boneless meat.
In addition to classic tandoori spices like cumin, coriander and garam masala, tikka masala powder usually includes:
- Turmeric for an earthy flavor and yellow color
- Amchoor powder for tanginess
- Chaat masala for extra zing
The amounts of these extra spices vary, but overall tikka masala powder has a comparable flavor profile to tandoori masala. The two can typically be swapped 1:1 in recipes.
4. Curry Powder
Curry powder is arguably the most convenient tandoori masala substitute, as it is easily found in any supermarket. Standard curry powder contains many of the same spices as tandoori masala, like coriander, turmeric, cumin, ginger and chili powder.
However, there are a few important ways that curry powder differs from tandoori masala:
- It is not as red. Curry powders use less paprika and red chili powder.
- It has a stronger turmeric flavor. More turmeric means more earthiness.
- It can be less aromatic. Warming spices like cinnamon, cardamom and cloves may be lacking.
To adapt curry powder as a tandoori masala replacement:
- Use a 1:1 ratio
- Consider adding a pinch of garam masala for extra aroma
- Mix in cayenne or paprika for more red color and heat
With small adjustments, basic curry powder can mimic the general tandoori masala flavor profile.
5. Chaat Masala
Chaat masala is a zingy, tangy Indian spice blend. It contains many of the spices found in tandoori masala, like cumin, coriander, ginger, cloves and black salt. The key differences are that chaat masala also includes tart ingredients like amchoor, mint and pomegranate seeds.
To use chaat masala as a substitute:
- Use a 1:1 ratio
- Add cayenne pepper or red chili powder for heat
- Consider mixing in a small amount of garam masala for sweet aroma
Chaat masala gives tandoori dishes a delicious sour note. While the flavor profile changes slightly, it adds a nice twist to traditional tandoori spices.
6. Homemade Tandoori Masala
Making homemade tandoori masala powder allows you to customize the blend to your taste and use the freshest spices possible. With a little grinding and mixing, you can quickly DIY an excellent tandoori substitute:
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 1 tablespoon coriander
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- 1⁄2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1⁄2 teaspoon Kashmiri red chili powder (or cayenne)
- 1⁄2 teaspoon paprika
- 1⁄4 teaspoon ginger powder
- 1⁄4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1⁄4 teaspoon black pepper
- Pinch of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves or cardamom (optional)
Simply toast the whole spices briefly to enhance their flavors. Then grind everything to a fine powder using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Whisk to combine, and you have your own homemade tandoori masala!
Key Takeaway: Garam masala, tandoori chicken masala, tikka masala, curry powder, chaat masala and DIY blends all make great substitutes for tandoori masala powder. Add extra spices to customize the flavor.
How to Use Tandoori Masala Substitutes
Tandoori masala substitutes can be seamlessly used in place of tandoori masala to deliver authentic Indian flavor. Here are some tips for integrating substitute blends into your cooking:
Marinades and rubs: Mix the substitute masala with yogurt, lemon juice and oil to make a marinade for meats. Or use it alone as a dry rub on proteins before grilling or roasting.
Curries: Add the masala to curry dishes in place of tandoori masala. It will flavor the sauce and give a similar aroma.
Vegetables: Roast cauliflower, potatoes, paneer or other veggies with a tandoori masala substitute to add richness.
Rice: Stir your masala substitute into rice pilafs or biryanis for flavor and color.
Skewers: Coat chicken, shrimp or veggie skewers with the masala before grilling.
Snacks: Sprinkle masala substitutes on popcorn, nuts or chips for spice.
With a little creativity, you can use tandoori masala stand-ins to add signature tandoori flavor to all kinds of dishes beyond traditional chicken tandoori.
Is tandoori masala the same as garam masala?
No, tandoori and garam masala are different spice blends, although they share some common ingredients. Garam masala lacks the red chili powder that gives tandoori masala its color and heat. But garam masala can easily be transformed into a tandoori substitute by adding spices.
Can I use tikka masala instead of tandoori masala?
Yes, tikka masala powder makes an excellent replacement for tandoori masala. They have similar ingredients like garam masala, cumin and coriander. Tikka masala also contains turmeric and amchoor powder, which differentiates it slightly but doesn't negatively impact the flavor.
Is curry powder a good substitute for tandoori masala?
Curry powder contains many of the same spices as tandoori masala, like cumin, coriander and turmeric, so it can mimic the general flavor profile. Add a little garam masala for aroma and cayenne for color and heat to make it even closer to tandoori masala.
Can I use chaat masala instead of tandoori masala?
Chaat masala has lots of the same spices but also includes tart ingredients like pomegranate, mint and amchoor powder. This gives it a citrusy, sour taste that differs somewhat from traditional tandoori masala. But it can be used successfully, especially if you add other spices to balance the tartness.
Is it hard to make my own tandoori masala powder?
Not at all! You likely have all the ingredients like cumin, coriander and chili powder already in your pantry. Simply toast and grind the spices, then combine them in the right proportions. Making your own allows you to customize the heat level and aroma.
Key Takeaway: Tandoori masala substitutes like garam masala, tikka masala and curry powder can easily replicate tandoori flavor. Add extra spices as needed to balance the flavor profile.
Tandoori masala powder may have a short ingredient list, but those few spices come together to create a wonderfully complex, aromatic and colorful blend. While it can be hard to find outside of Indian markets, there are many easy-to-source alternatives.
Spice mixes like garam masala, tikka masala, curry powder, chaat masala and more all contain similar ingredients that allow them to mimic tandoori flavor. With small additions and ratio adjustments, these substitutes can seamlessly stand in for tandoori masala powder.