What Is Tandoori Masala? The Story Behind The Spice

| Last Updated: January 25, 2020 |

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Tandoori masala is a spice mix used in dishes cooked using a tandoor, which is a type of clay oven used in India and Pakistan. The food is cooked at very high temperatures over burning charcoal inside the tandoor. Tandoors can get as hot as 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Tandoori masala is mainly used on meat, usually chicken. Traditionally, meat cooked in a tandoor is marinated in a mixture of yogurt and spices. The yogurt helps the spices to stick to the meat.

What’s the story behind tandoori masala?

This spice blend as we know it was invented by a man named Kundan Lala Gujral in the early 20th century. Gujral worked as a chef in a small restaurant in Peshawar, Pakistan starting in 1920. He began experimenting with cooking chicken inside the restaurant’s tandoor, which was used only for baking bread at that time. Tandoors are traditionally used to make naan. The meat was marinated in yogurt and skewered. The blend of spices he used to season it gave it a red color and the cooking method ensured that it had crisp skin. Tandoori chicken would become popular in that part of Pakistan.

When India and Pakistan parted, Gujral was forced to return to India. He opened a new restaurant and it was there that tandoori chicken became a world-famous dish. It would eventually evolve into the dish that you see being served in Indian restaurants today. He would go on to invent butter chicken, another Indian dish loved around the world. Tandoori masala is an ingredient in butter chicken as well.

Modern tandoori masala blends often include red food coloring to give the chicken a brighter color than you would get from just the red Kashmiri chili powder alone. Not all blends include it, but most of the commercial ones do. The food dye known as Red 40 is the most widely used coloring agent in modern tandoori masala. Older versions used the combination of red chili powder and turmeric to produce a duller red-orange color. The color has become one of the distinctive characteristics of this blend.

What does tandoori masala taste like?

Tandoori masala’s ingredients have always varied from cook to cook or from brand to brand when using commercial premixed blends, but most are built on a foundation of the spices used to make garam masala. Those spices include cumin, coriander, and fennel. Garlic and ground Kashmiri chili pepper are among the ingredients often added to garam masala when making tandoori masala. Most versions have a pungent, complex flavor due to the variety of aromatic and sweet spices they contain. Also, most blends have a strong garlic note.

How spicy is tandoori masala?

Hot Kashmiri chiles are one of the main ingredients here and they are responsible for the color of the older traditional version. The chilies also give the spice blend a peppery kick. That said, Kashmiri is not a very hot pepper. Its Scoville heat range runs from 1,000 to 2,000 Scoville heat units, which puts it below even the mildest jalapeño pepper (2,500 to 8,000 SHU).

How is tandoori masala typically used?

Tandoori masala is an essential ingredient for tandoori chicken, butter chicken, and chicken tikka masala. Like each of the spices used to make it, the blend is very versatile. Use it as a dry rub for any grilled meat, or to make a curry. Tandoori masala goes well with vegetables too. Use a yogurt marinade made with it on potatoes, cauliflower, or any vegetables that you plan to grill or oven roast. Tandoori masala is great on shrimp, tofu, and in samosas.

Matt Bray

Matt Bray

Chief Chilihead at Cindermint
Founder of PepperScale and Cindermint LLC. Sucker for a good scotch bonnet. Spicy food super-fan. Current fiery fascination: Datil hot sauces.

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