Why Your Tandoori Masala Doesn’t Need to be Bright Red

August 26, 2013 3 Comments


When my first cookbook, The Indian Slow Cooker, was released in September, 2010, I did what every new author does. I religiously checked Amazon.com every hour on the hour with my breathe held. I was looking for rankings and reviews. As they started to trickle in, most were stellar, five-star ones. But there were some negative ones too.

The first really nasty review came from a ‘man’ in Thailand, saying that he was disgusted that the chicken curry recipe never turned red. And, that it was not up to his expectations of standard Indian food. I wrote back saying that he must have had the dish mistaken with Tandoori Chicken. And, that neither chicken curry nor Tandoori-style chicken technically need be bright red. I continued by writing, “Since when have you seen red chickens running around?”

I have no issues with folks reviewing my books fairly – whether they be positive or negative, but I do have an issue with someone being ignorant of Indian cuisine and then trying to take a stab at being a critic. After I posted my feedback on his feedback, his review magically disappeared.

But, it still begs the question. Do you get Tandoori? Most folks don’t – even if they are Indian. So, let’s clarify what it all means.

Tandoor refers to a clay oven heated to crazily high levels. The ovens are traditionally large and deep and can be as hot as 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Most Indian restaurants have a Tandoor, but if you are in Chicago and really want to see one up close, sign up with a group of friends to take a walking tour with me of little India, or Devon. There’s a European bakery on the strip that makes all of their bread in this kind of oven and will actually let you peer into its deep inferno (for the price of a loaf!).

The deep, clay fiery ovens were always used to make Indian breads like naan, but with the opening of Moti Mahal Restaurant in Delhi, the playing field changed forever. The owner of this now-famous restaurant, Lala Kundan Lal Gujral, actually took marinated chicken for the first time and cooked it to perfection deep in this type of oven. Soon, butter and tandoori chicken was to become famous among the elites in Delhi and all over the world.

The marinade on this chicken also has an interesting history. Though I’m still learning, my basic understanding is that it was originally made with a leaning towards turmeric and paprika (sweet red bell pepper powder), which gave the baked chicken a yellowish-orangey-red coloring rather than the bright red we are accustomed to now. That bright red sadly comes from Food Dyes like Red 40.

Growing up, I never even realized this, but in recent years when I picked up a jar of pre-mixed Tandoori spice blend and read the ingredients – there it was – Red 40 right in the ingredient listing. Even my husband, who is normally a little less ‘health food’ conscious than me ordered me to trash the jar. Knowing all we know now about the negative effects of food dyes on health and children’s behavior – I stay away from them and certainly do not want to feed them to my kids.

When I read Indian cookbooks and see that red food dye is actually in the ingredient listing for Tandoori anything, I’m equally disappointed. You don’t need it to make deliciously tasting Indian chicken, tofu, or whatever.

Instead, use the blend below, which gets it beautiful hue from red chiles, paprika, and turmeric. And always remember, these masalas (spice blends) differ depending on your preferences. This is my own recipe that I’ve developed over time and with trial and error. Change it up as you like!


Tandoori Masala
Makes 1 ½ cups 

1 cup whole dried Kashmiri chiles
1/2 cup coriander seeds
1/2 cup cumin seeds
¼ cup black peppercorn
¼ cup whole cloves
2 tablespoons whole green cardamom
2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
3 2 ½-inch cinnamon sticks
1 tablespoon carom seeds (ajwain)
1 heaping tablespoon ginger powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons turmeric powder
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg (optional)
1/2 cup unsmoked paprika

1. In a dry, heavy 4-quart sauté pan, heat the whole spices (chiles, coriander, cumin, peppercorn, cloves, cardamom, fenugreek, cinnamon, and carom) over medium-high heat until they become reddish and fragrant, about 4 – 5 minutes. Mix occasionally so the smaller seeds do not burn.

2. Transfer this mixture to a large tray and cool for at least 15 minutes.

3. Once cooled, transfer to a high-power blender, Vita Mix, or coffee grinder reserved for spices. Take your time and grind down into a fine powder.

4. Put this mixture into a large bowl. Add powdered spices (ginger, garlic, turmeric, nutmeg, and paprika). Mix well. I use a whisk to make sure everything blends.

Store in an airtight jar (preferably glass). This mixture will last you up to 6 months. I use it to make everything from tandoori chicken or tofu to seasoning popcorn.

The recipe for Tandoori Chicken or Tofu will be in my next blog post. The key is to take this blend and mix it with yogurt (use soy or coconut cream if you are Vegan) and marinate your veggies or meat in this blend for a few hours or overnight. Then bake or grill. 

If you like this post and want more quick Indian cooking tips, check out and ‘Like’ my Facebook Fan page, Indian As Apple Pie. AND help me reach my goal of 20,000 likes by the end of the year!

3 Responses

Paul Griffiths
Paul Griffiths

December 12, 2023

I do not understand why colouring used in restaurants.
South Shields not my meal but chicken tikka so red and purple looking. Tell the waiter you do want colouring


December 29, 2021

Dear Anupay,
I have your “Indian for Everyone” book, and just finished making and eating your Chicken Tikka Masala recipe (which was a revelation in self-sufficiency, having to make not only the tandoori masala but the tandoori chicken first). Though this is not my choice at the many Indian restaurants I’ve been to (I lean towards the more authentic S. Indian curries), I have to tell you that yours was an absolute flavor-bomb revelation of balanced complexity, and rivals your excellent Kerlala Curry as the best I’ve ever made! Your book is a constant source of inspiration for this aspiring German/Western European-American amateur!


April 06, 2020

Thanks so much for explaining Tandoori in a way that is easy for me to understand. I am fond of all types of Indian foods and occasionally try to make something myself. I look forward to using your spice mix recipe and experimenting even more. My next attempt will be Tandoori Chicken with Naan bread. I will need to find one more dish to seve with it, though (lol) . I love throwing small dinner parties and trying new menus from scratch. Once again Thanks

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