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Is a chicken tikka masala spicy?

Chicken tikka masala is one of the most popular Indian dishes, known for its rich, creamy, tomato-based sauce. But with the complex blend of spices used, there is often debate around how spicy chicken tikka masala really is.

What is chicken tikka masala?

Chicken tikka masala is believed to have originated in India, likely as a variation of butter chicken. It consists of roasted marinated chicken (chicken tikka) in a creamy, tomato-based gravy. The chicken is traditionally marinated in a blend of spices like garlic, ginger, garam masala, turmeric, and chili peppers before being roasted. It is then simmered in a sauce made of tomatoes, cream or coconut milk, spices, and fresh herbs.

There are many variations on chicken tikka masala, but the staple ingredients are chicken, tomatoes, spices, and a dairy product like yogurt, cream or coconut milk to create the rich gravy.

Is chicken tikka masala spicy?

The spiciness of any chicken tikka masala can vary greatly depending on the specific recipe used. Since there is no definitive recipe, the level of spiciness comes down to the quantity and types of chili peppers used in both the marinade and the sauce.

Most chicken tikka masala recipes use a small amount of spicy chili peppers like cayenne pepper in the marinade and the sauce. This gives it a mild spiciness that is flavorful but not too hot for most people to handle. The creaminess of the sauce also helps temper the heat from any chili peppers used.

Some recipes may use hotter peppers like Serrano or bird’s eye chili, or add more cayenne pepper, to make a spicier version. But in general, traditional chicken tikka masala has just a touch of heat and would not be considered very spicy by most people’s standards.

Typical spiciness ratings

On a spiciness scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the hottest, chicken tikka masala is often rated around a 3 or 4 in terms of heat level. By comparison:

Dish Spiciness Rating
Korma 1-2
Butter chicken 2-3
Chicken tikka masala 3-4
Tikka masala 4-5
Vindaloo 7-10

So while chicken tikka masala has some spiciness from chili peppers, it generally falls on the milder end of the Indian cuisine spice spectrum.

Factors that impact spiciness

There are a few key factors that determine how spicy any particular chicken tikka masala will be:

Types of chili peppers used

The varieties of chili peppers used, and how much is added, greatly affects spiciness. Cayenne pepper provides a moderate heat while bird’s eye chilis or habanero would make it very spicy. Using more peppers increases the heat level too.

Cooking method

Cooking method also plays a role. Frying the chilis in oil releases more of their capsaicin, making it spicier. Roasting chili peppers reduces some of their heat.

Sauce ingredients

The creamy, yogurt- or tomato-based sauce has a cooling effect, counteracting some of the heat from the chilis. More cream or coconut milk would tone down the spiciness.

Individual tolerance

Personal tolerance for spicy foods varies greatly. The same dish may be mouth-burning hot for one person and mild for another. Tasters should keep their individual preferences in mind when determining if a chicken tikka masala is spicy or not.

How to adjust spice level

For those who find a chicken tikka masala to be too hot or not spicy enough, there are easy ways to adjust the heat level:

To reduce spiciness:

  • Use fewer or milder chili peppers in the marinade and sauce
  • Add more yogurt, cream or coconut milk to the sauce
  • Finish with butter or honey to coat the palate
  • Serve with rice, naan or mango chutney to help temper heat

To increase spiciness:

  • Use more or hotter chili peppers
  • Add extra spices like cayenne, chili powder or red pepper flakes
  • Reduce cream or coconut milk in the sauce
  • Stir in a spicy condiment like harissa or hot sauce


In summary, traditional chicken tikka masala has a mild to moderately spicy flavor. The complex blend of warm, aromatic spices and creamy, cooling sauce strikes a balanced heat level that is not overly hot for most people. However, the spiciness ultimately comes down to the specific recipe, preparation method, and personal heat tolerance of the individual tasting it. With a few tweaks, the dish can be adjusted to be mellow or extra fiery to suit any preference.