Max’s favorite takeout dish has always been chicken tikka masala. As a half-British kid who grew up in NYC (and whose mom craved exclusively Indian food while pregnant with him), this makes total sense. So, I finally developed a killer plant-based version of this recipe to please his insatiable appetite for Indian takeout.
The result is this tofu tikka masala, and I’m not joking when I say it’s almost too good to be true. Max agrees, and says it’s his new favorite Indian dish (which says a lot, because he’s obsessed with my red lentil curry).
I think you’ll love this dish just as much as we do, and here’s why:
- Gourmet restaurant-quality: If you’ve ever cooked Indian food at home and felt disappointed that it didn’t taste as good as the restaurant stuff, this recipe will deliver that experience. Actually, Max (and I) think it’s better than any comparable meal we’ve eaten at an Indian restaurant.
- Perfectly balanced: This tofu tikka masala is a party in your mouth but there’s no single flavor that stands out. Instead, it’s a pure harmony of flavors: tangy, spicy, slightly smoky, citrusy, and buttery.
- Authentic Indian flavors: While tofu tikka masala is not an “authentic” Indian dish, the cooking techniques and flavor layering here give this dish authentic Indian flavors, the kind you’d expect from a really good Indian restaurant or an Indian auntie’s house.
- Indulgent but wholesome: this plant-based spin on chicken tikka masala is vegan, gluten-free, and nut-free (it does contain coconut) but is simultaneously indulgent and oh-so-creamy.
PS: If you have my cookbook, The Vegan Instant Pot Cookbook, the Tofu Cauliflower Tikka Masala in chapter 6 is a fan favorite (and a personal favorite).
What is “tofu tikka masala”?
For starters, it’s an invented hybrid recipe that’s a plant-based spin on Chicken Tikka Masala. While you might not find chicken tikka masala in India, it’s extremely popular in the West. Chicken tikka masala is the UK’s national dish and is many Americans’ first introduction to Indian cuisine).
There’s some debate about where chicken tikka masala was invented and if it’s really an Indian dish. Since the flavors and cooking techniques are markedly Indian, I consider it Indian. But I also recognize most people in India don’t eat it (and it’s not a dish many Indian-Americans eat at home, though many certainly do at restaurants).
Traditionally, chicken tikka masala has two main components. (1) the chicken tikka, which are small pieces of chicken marinated in yogurt and spices, and then chargrilled in a tandoor oven; and (2) the masala, or the rich sauce made with onions, tomatoes, spices, and finished with cream and butter.
I tried to stick to this formula as best as I could with, of course, using plant-based ingredients and a home kitchen that sadly does not include a tandoor oven.
My tofu tikka masala also contains these two components: (1) tofu tikka, which are small pieces of extra-firm tofu that get marinated in plant-based yogurt and spices, then broiled in a hot cast iron skillet until charred in some spots; (2) masala, a creamy, well-spiced tomato-onion sauce that’s finished with coconut milk and a pat of vegan butter.
The result is extraordinary and truly one of the most delicious meals I’ve made at home. The flavors are complex and keep you coming back for more; the texture is creamy and luxurious with bits of charred tofu that make for a delightful contrast.
I do want to mention that my recipe is not a weeknight, Westernized version of an Indian recipe. That’s because traditional Indian recipes are not quick. They layer so many different spices and flavors, and cooking them together takes time to meld into a harmonious dish that will delight your tastebuds.
That said, you can make this an easier weeknight friendly meal (read the FAQ section). It’s not as amazing but still pretty dang tasty.
Tip: This recipe pairs perfectly paired with rice, but is even more perfect with with my homemade vegan naan (it’s fluffy, chewy, and buttery!).
How to make tofu tikka masala
Make the tofu tikka.
Press the tofu for 20ish minutes to drain excess water. Use your hands to tear apart into chunks (not too small).
How to press tofu: If you have a tofu press, use that. If not, wrap the tofu in a thin dish towel and weigh it down with a heavy book or a plate weighted down by several cans. Remove the towel after 10 minutes, replace it with a fresh one, and repeat.
Make the tofu tikka marinade while the tofu is pressing. Add your whole spices to a warm skillet over medium heat. Toast until fragrant, shaking the pan frequently. Allow to cool, then grind using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.
Combine the freshly ground spices with ground turmeric, paprika, nutmeg, Indian red chili powder, and ginger for the tikka spice blend.
Combine the tikka spice blend with the plant-based yogurt, lemon juice, freshly grated ginger and garlic, oil and salt. Mix well.
Add the marinade on top of the tofu. Use your hands to very gently toss the tofu in the marinade until well-coated. Marinate in the fridge for 2 hours, or up to 8 hours.
Broil the tofu. Preheat a large cast iron skillet in the oven at 500ºF/260ºC for 10 minutes. Add the marinated tofu chunks to the hot pan.
Place the pan underneath the broiler (on the second rack, not directly underneath the flame) and broil for 10-12 minutes, or until the tofu is charred in spots on top.
Note: I like to cook the tofu while finishing the masala.
Make the masala.
Note: you can make the masala 1-3 days in advance.
Gather your ingredients for the masala, aka the sauce/gravy.
In a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, toast the cumin seeds in oil for 1 minute, shaking the pan frequently. Add the dried red chili peppers, and toast for 30 seconds.
Saute the finely diced onions with a pinch of salt for 6-8 minutes, or until golden brown.
Toss in the ginger, garlic, green chili pepper, and turmeric. Cook for 1 minute, until very aromatic.
Add the Indian chili powder, coriander, and tomato paste and stir vigorously for 30-60 seconds. Next, pop in the diced tomatoes. Cook for 2-3 minutes until softened.
Add the cilantro stems, salt, and a few tablespoons of water. Cover the pan and bring to a simmer.
Simmer the masala for 15 minutes until the liquid has mostly evaporated and it’s almost jammy.
Pour in the coconut milk, garam masala, fenugreek leaves (crush with your hands before adding), and vegan butter. Stir until melted and combined.
Add broiled tofu to the masala plus lemon juice and thinly sliced serrano peppers (only add if you want a spicy spicy version). Toss to coat and simmer for 2 minutes.
Garnish with cilantro, and serve!
Ingredient Notes and Tips
Extra firm tofu is required for this recipe (anything softer will fall apart). If you have access to super-firm or high-protein tofu, that works even better (but is not necessary).
You need to press the tofu for 20-30 minutes to enable the tofu to absorb the marinade and to get charred. I recently started using a tofu press, and I highly recommend it (affiliate link).
Be as gentle as possible when tossing the tofu with the marinade to prevent it from crumbling.
Unsweetened Plant-Based Yogurt
I recommend a thick and creamy variety for two reasons. First, chicken tikka is typically marinated in high-fat whole milk yogurt. Second, a thinner variety of yogurt will add more liquid and make the marinade (and thus the tofu) watery.
I like using Kite Hill’s Greek-style almond yogurt a thick coconut yogurt like Culina, CocoJune, or GT’s CocoYo. If you don’t have access to a yogurt like this, try canned coconut cream (but add a squeeze or two more lemon juice).
One of the reasons this dish has SO much flavor is the tikka marinade uses whole spices that are toasted and freshly ground. Spices start to lose some potency as soon as they’re ground, but whole spices have protective seed coatings, so when you grind them, they’re incredibly fresh and flavorful.
Tip: Using a mixture of freshly ground whole spices with a few pre-ground spices lends this dish an incredible complexity and depth of flavor. You can find whole spices at your local South Asian grocer (or online, e.g., Amazon). If you don’t have whole spices, check out the Recipe Card Note below on how to substitute ground spices.
A couple spice-specific notes.
- For the whole green cardamom, split open the pods and use only the black seeds inside (discard the pods).
- Kasoori methi, AKA fenugreek leaves, adds a bold, savory flavor to the marinade and the masala that can’t be replicated with anything else. I’ve listed it as optional, but if you visit an Indian grocery store, I’d consider it a must-buy!
- An electric spice grinder makes this a breeze (this one grinds everything super finely; affiliate link). If you are using a mortar and pestle, it’ll take more time and be a bit more difficult; also be sure break the cinnamon sticks into a few pieces (before or after toasting) to make it easier to grind.
Aromatics and Chili Peppers
Finely dice the onions. You want them to blend into the background, not have distinct pieces.
There’s a lot of heat in this dish from different sources: Indian red chile powder in the tofu marinade, along with dried red chili peppers, fresh serrano peppers, and Indian red chile powder in the masala. I even add a serrano pepper at the end for a fresh herbal crunch (we love spicy food, in case you didn’t know it!).
To reduce the spiciness, you have several options: (1) omit the serrano pepper at the end of the recipe (this makes it spicy spicy!); (2) remove the membranes and seeds from the serrano pepper for the masala, or use a milder jalapeño pepper; (3) scale down the amount of Indian red chile powder used in the masala; (4) omit the dried red chili peppers in the masala.
Frequently Asked Questions
While I think the marinated and charred tofu tikka makes for an incredible dish (and is similar to how chicken tikka masala is traditionally prepared), if you want something quicker, skip the tofu tikka and just simmer plain tofu in the masala.
Press the tofu, tear it into chunks, and then add it to the masala (after the coconut milk, etc. has been added). Allow to simmer in the masala for 5-10 minutes, gently stirring occasionally.
Note: you can make the masala 1-3 days in advance. That will save you time on the day you’re serving it and allow you to make the original version in less time.
Nope! Chili powder, the kind found in all grocery stores and used in Mexican and Tex-Mex chili recipes, is usually a spice blend of powdered chilies and spices like oregano and paprika.
Indian red chile powder is made of pure ground dried chile peppers (no additives) and is spicier than standard chili powder. There are a few types of Indian chile powder: standard red chili powders like this are quite spicy (and often just called “red chili powder” or mirchi, Hindi for chili) and the Kashmiri chili powder is more milder (and more beautifully red).
If you don’t eat a lot of spicy food, Kashmiri chili powder is a good option. You can also substitute cayenne pepper for the standard chili powder, but I usually use about 50-75% less cayenne.
Store covered leftovers in the fridge for 5 to 6 days. Reheat on the stove or in the microwave.
This dish also freezes beautifully. In our tests, you couldn’t really even detect any difference after this dish was frozen and defrosted. I recommend freezing it in smaller containers instead of one big container (it will defrost more quickly). Defrost in the fridge and reheat on the stove or the microwave.
Tikka masala is typically made with cream, and you need something rich to balance the spices and the tanginess of the tomatoes. Coconut milk works great here, and is the easiest plant-based option (the spices do a great job of masking any coconut flavor).
But if you’re allergic to coconut, a homemade cashew cream would be delicious here. Simply blend all the below ingredients in a high-powered blender until smooth, thick, and creamy.
• 3/4 cup (100g) raw cashews (soaked overnight, or boiled in water on the stove for 15 minutes)
• 1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon water (135 mL), more as needed
• 1 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
• 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
More gourmet vegan Indian recipes
- Dal Makhani: an incredibly creamy and complex dal that’s perfect for special occasions.
- Vegan Palak Paneer: an easy but gourmet plant-based take on palak paneer that’s indulgent but really nourishing.
- Malai Kofta: Crispy dumplings in a creamy, spiced curry. Perfect celebratory dish!
- Dal Tadka: an everyday dal that doesn’t skimp on flavor and will become a regular in your rotation.
That’s all you need to know about this Tofu Tikka Masala! If you give it a try and love it, please leave a rating and review below. It helps the blog and our business continue to grow :)
Watch: How to make Tofu Tikka Masala!
Tofu Tikka Masala
1) TOFU TIKKA
- 2 (14-ounce/400g) blocks of extra firm tofu
- 1 cup (227g) unsweetened thick, creamy vegan yogurt*
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed with a press or grated
- ½- inch piece fresh ginger, grated or minced
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 1/2 tablespoons grapeseed oil or other high-heat oil, plus more for cooking the tofu
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Tikka Spice Blend*
- 1 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 4 teaspoons coriander seeds
- 6 whole cloves
- ~30 black peppercorns
- 6 green cardamom pods, (black seeds only; discard pods)
- 2 (2-to-3inch) cinnamon sticks***
- ½ tablespoon fenugreek leaves, AKA kasoori methi (optional but recommended)****
- 1 ½ teaspoons Indian red chile powder***** (use half the amount for a milder heat)
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated (or pre-ground)
- 3 tablespoons grapeseed oil or other high-heat oil
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 6 whole dried red chilies (if not available, you can sub with ½ tsp red pepper flakes, or omit for less heat)
- 1 large red onion or 2 small red onions, finely diced
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 1/2- inch piece ginger, minced or grated
- 1 serrano pepper, diced (plus 1 thinly sliced serrano pepper for garnish – only for spicy spicy version)*******
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon Indian red chile powder** (use half the amount for a milder heat)
- ½ teaspoon ground coriander
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste (optional)
- 1 pound (454g) tomatoes, diced
- 1 cup (14g) cilantro, stems finely chopped and leaves chopped (save leaves for garnish)
- 3 tablespoons water
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1 tablespoon garam masala
- 2 tablespoons fenugreek leaves AKA kasoori methi (optional but recommended)***
- 1 (13.5 ounce/400 mL) can full-fat coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon vegan butter
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more to taste
- 3 cups cooked white rice or flatbread, such as naan or roti
- Vegan yogurt to dollop on top (optional, but adds a nice cooling balance)
- Prepare the tofu. Use a tofu press. Or, wrap the tofu in a clean dish towel or several layers of paper towels, weigh it down with a heavy cookbook or a large plate weighed down by a few cans of beans. Press the tofu for 20 to 30 minutes. Tear the tofu into chunks with your hands and transfer the tofu chunks to a large bowl.NOTE: the tofu chunks shouldn’t be too large or too small (see photos in blog post for reference), but it’s totally fine if they’re not all the same size.
- Make the tikka spice blend. Heat a small or medium frying pan over medium heat. Once warm, add the whole spices (cumin and coriander seeds, cloves, peppercorns, cardamom seeds, cinnamon sticks, and fenugreek leaves). Toast, shaking the pan frequently, until they are very fragrant and toasty, and the lighter seeds have browned, 2 ½ to 3 ½ minutes. Transfer the seeds out of the pan and allow to cool. Once cool, add to a spice grinder or a mortar & pestle and crush until finely ground. Pour into a bowl, add the ground spices (Indian red chile powder, turmeric, paprika, nutmeg, and ginger), and toss all the spices to combine.
- Make the Tikka marinade. In a medium bowl, mix together the spice blend with the yogurt, garlic, ginger, lemon juice, oil, and salt. Pour the marinade over the tofu chunks and use your hands to very gently coat all the crevices of the tofu, taking care to not mash it. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours, or up to 8 hours.
- When ready to bake the tofu, arrange an oven rack 6 inches from the heat source (usually, the second rack). Add a 12-inch cast iron skillet to the rack and preheat the oven to 500ºF/260ºC. Once the skillet is smoking hot, transfer it to the stove or a pot holder. Turn the broiler to high.
- Add enough oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Add the marinated tofu to the pan, leaving excess marinade behind. It will be pretty tightly packed into the pan.Return the pan to the second oven rack and broil until the tofu is cooked through and charred in some spots on top, 10 to 12 minutes. NOTE: after the 5-minute mark, I recommend checking every 1-2 minutes to prevent burning since every oven is different.
- MAKE THE MASALA. Heat the 3 tablespoons of oil in a deep 12-inch sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the cumin seeds and cook for 1 minute, swirling the pan frequently. Add the dried chilies and cook for another 30 seconds, swirling frequently to prevent burning.
- Add the onions with a couple pinches of salt and cook until golden brown, about 6 to 8 minutes (if the onions start browning too quickly, lower the heat to medium).
- Add in a few splashes of water to stop the onions from browning too much, then add the garlic, ginger, diced serrano pepper, and turmeric, and cook for 1 minute, tossing frequently. Add the red chili powder, coriander, and tomato paste. Stir frequently for 30 to 60 seconds.
- Add the tomatoes and their juices, and cook until broken down and softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cilantro stems (save the leaves for the garnish), 3 tablespoons of water, and 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, and stir. Cover the pan and bring to a simmer.
- Simmer the masala for 15 minutes, opening the pot to stir occasionally, until the liquid has mostly evaporated. Scoop out the dried red chilies and discard.
- Add in the coconut milk, garam masala, and vegan butter. Crush the fenugreek leaves in your hand to release the aroma and add to the masala. Increase the heat slightly and stir until everything is combined and the butter is melted.If you prefer a smoother texture, feel free to run an immersion blender through the masala.
- Add the baked tofu, the thinly sliced serrano pepper (if using for spicy spicy!), and lemon juice. Simmer for 2 minutes and coat the tofu in the sauce. Taste, and if it’s a bit too acidic, add a tiny bit of sugar (¼ to ½ teaspoon).
- Garnish the masala with the cilantro leaves and season to taste with salt. Serve tofu tikka masala over rice and/or with Indian flatbread.
- 1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds = 1 tsp ground
- 4 tsp coriander seeds = 3 tsp ground
- 6 whole cloves = 1/2 tsp ground
- ~30 black peppercorns = 1/2 to 1 tsp ground
- 2 (2-to-3inch) cinnamon sticks = or 1/2 tsp ground
- 6 cardamom pods = 1/4 tsp ground
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