When it comes to bright looking curry dishes, chicken tikka masala is about as vivid as it gets. That bright red colour is certainly distinctive. But what makes tikka masala red? There are a few reasons, but it is due to the variety of red ingredients used within the dish. I will give you the answer and show you what goes into a tasty tikka masala to give it that red colour.
Quick Answer | What Makes Tikka Masala Red?
Tikka masala is a tomato-based dish. Therefore it is going to have a red colour. You’ll read elsewhere that the red colour comes from Kashmiri chilli. this isn't strictly true. Tikka masala is a really mild dish and doesn’t contain any chilli powder at all… Especially not Kashmiri chilli powder. While it is mild and red, you won't find it normally included in this BIR dish.
Because tikka masala has become synonymous with being a ‘bright red’ curry (and because people complain when it isn’t), some restaurants supplement their curry colour with the use of artificial food dye!
Read on if you want to go more in-depth about where tikka masala gets its red colour.
What is Tikka Masala?
Tikka masala is a bright red curry that is thought to originate from the UK. If you know the history of chicken tikka masala, it was traditionally made using a can of tomato soup. The curry is traditionally made with chicken.
Tikka masala is one of the ‘safe’ choices on an Indian takeaway menu. It is not usually made with any hot spices and is regarded as a really mild dish.
While tikka masala is traditionally thought of as ‘red’, it can come in various colours. Some curry restaurants serve a bright orange version of the dish. In contrast, others will add certain ‘secret’ ingredients to bring it to that vibrant red colour that we all know and love.
Why is My Tikka Masala Red?
Alright, let’s get down to it. There are a few reasons why tikka masala is red. To understand why, we need to look at the ingredients that give tikka masala that distinctive red colour. They are as follows: -
- Red Tandoori Masala Paste
- Red Food Dye
- Lemon Juice
- Tandoori Chicken
Let’s take a look at each ingredient in turn…
For those of you who are familiar with chicken tikka masala, it is definitely a tomato-based dish. Generally, whole tomatoes aren’t used. Instead, it is cooked using something called tomato puree. This is a naturally red ingredient, so it will give that colour to any dish in which it is used.
Red Tandoori Masala Paste
Authentic Indian curry chefs don’t have time to assemble spice pastes and powders for each curry dish.
I hate to break it to you, but based on my experience working in an Indian restaurant, they do have a few food cheats and shortcuts. Yes, this does include using jar-based pastes.
Red tandoori masala paste is bright red in colour. It also contains one or two additives that will really make that red colour ‘pop.’
Red Food Dye
If your tikka masala isn’t red, why not give it a little helping hand?
A pot of red food dye power or a tube of red coloured food gel works wonders to get a really bright and red vivid colour in your tikka masala.
Want to know what the restaurants use?
The powder for sure, but this can be difficult to get in a supermarket. The good news is that ordering red food dye for curry is really easy online.
Paprika is a bright red spice that is relatively mild in flavour. It’s made by drying out relatively mild red bell peppers before grinding them into a fine powder. As a result, you’ll get all of that lovely red colour without making the dish too spicy.
It doesn’t take much paprika to make practically any dish a little redder.
Lemon juice isn’t red.
No, I know that! However, lemon juice is an acid. Acidic elements, when combined with food dyes, have a very interesting effect. The acidity can help to preserve the structure and colour of red food dyes during cooking.
If you are a dessert fan, you’ll have seen this used to good effect in red velvet cake.
If you add a squeeze of lemon juice to your tikka and use a red food dye as well, you’ll find that it has a much brighter and more eye-catching colour.
This only works with certain types of food dye. I nearly always use red food colouring gel in my recipes. Red food dye liquid doesn’t tend to produce the bright colours I like.
As I said before, tikka masala is normally served with chicken. If you’ve picked a good Indian restaurant, there is a good chance that they will use tandoori chicken. If you don’t know what tandoori cooking is, be sure to check out my guide.
Tandoori chicken also happens to be bright red in colour. This is due to it being marinated (normally overnight) in a mix of red food colouring, garlic, ginger, and a few other herbs and spices.
As a result, this marinade will leak out into the tikka masala curry, so it could be one of the things that make tikka masala red.
What Makes Tikka Masala Red? Final Thoughts…
They say that you taste with your eyes, and I guess this is true. I don’t know why, but I find that a tikka masala that isn’t red just doesn’t taste the same. What makes tikka masala red? It’s a combination of the ingredients used all working together. This includes paprika, tomato puree, red tandoori chicken pieces, not to mention the addition of a little red food dye from time to time. As a result, you get a bright red, vibrant and very tasty curry. Just don’t drop it on the carpet!