This Masala Mac and Cheese is my twist on a classic American comfort food. The creamy cheese sauce is infused with warm Indian spices and studded with sweet peas and fresh cilantro. It's a unique dish that's packed with flavor! It's perfect for weeknight meals or even as a side dish for your Thanksgiving dinner.
As long as I can remember, macaroni and cheese has always been one of my favorite foods. Growing up in an Indian household with two working parents, the mac and cheese that I ate was the bright yellow kind that came out of a box. I've since moved on to experimenting with my own versions of the dish like my Keto Mac and Cheese and Cauliflower Mac and Cheese.
So I decided to create this Masala Mac and Cheese. I take the Indian flavors and spices (masala) I grew up eating and incorporate them into this classic American comfort food dish. The result is a delicious and unexpected combination of flavors!
The warm spices blend seamlessly with the creamy cheese sauce. Sweet peas and fresh cilantro add color, texture, and a pop of flavor.
This Indian mac and cheese recipe is a flavorful, unique dish that anyone can make at home. It’s also a great dish to introduce your kids to new flavors. Read my tips on how to prevent picky eaters and spice up your child's palate.
Why You'll Love This Dish
- Packed with flavor from warm spices and fresh herbs
- Comfort food with a twist- a unique twist on a classic dish
- Family-friendly- a great way to introduce new flavors to your kids
- Make-ahead- can be made in advance and freezes well
What is Masala?
"Masala" is a spice mixture that has been ground into a powder or paste. Masala is used in Indian cuisine.
In this dish, the "masala" part of the mac and cheese recipe refers to the Indian spice paste that I make by cooking onions and tomatoes with ginger, garlic, and dried spices. I then add the spice mixture to the cheese sauce to infuse it with lots of flavor.
Recipe Notes and Substitutions:
- Aromatics- ginger and garlic- I like to use a microplane zester grater to grate the ginger and garlic. You can also find ginger garlic paste at Indian grocery stores or online.
- Dried spices- turmeric powder, cumin, coriander, red chili powder or cayenne pepper
- Onions and tomatoes- form the base of the masala mixture
- Butter, flour, and milk- form the base of the cheese sauce
- Cheese- I use a mixture of Monterey Jack and cheddar
- Pasta- I use cavatappi but you can also use classic elbow macaroni, shells or any medium-sized pasta
- Peas- I use frozen peas for convenience
- Cilantro- fresh cilantro adds a pop of color and flavor; you can leave it out or substitute parsley
A Note on Spices and Herbs
You will need a variety of spices and herbs for this desi mac and cheese recipe. You can find them in the spice aisle of your grocery store or buy them online.
The good news is that once you have all of these spices, you can make just about any Indian dish! In addition, herbs and spices have been used for centuries for both culinary and medicinal purposes.
In its fresh form, this pungent tasting fibrous root has a light brown, slightly wrinkled appearance. It is an indispensable ingredient in all Asian cuisines.
The brown skin is usually peeled off before use. You can substitute dried ginger for fresh, but the flavors are different so use fresh when you can.
Ginger is often used for treating nausea.
Garlic is in the onion family and is used in cuisines around the world. Its pungent flavor mellows considerably when it's cooked.
Its papery skin is usually peeled off before use, but garlic can also be roasted in the skin. You can substitute dried garlic for fresh, but the flavors are different. So once again, use fresh when you can.
This earthy, slightly bitter spice comes from the root of a plant related to ginger. It is used for its intense, bright yellow-orange color. Turmeric is a main ingredient in many curry powders.
Turmeric has many medicinal uses. It's commonly used in Asia as an antiseptic for burns and cuts and as a remedy for nausea and abdominal cramps. Turmeric also has high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Cumin seeds are small, pale brown aromatic seeds that can be ground into a powder. You can buy them whole or ground.
Cumin has a warm, earthy flavor and is an essential component of many curry pastes and spice mixes. It is widely used in Asian cuisines as well as Mexican, Cuban, South American, Middle Eastern, and more.
All parts of this herb are edible. The fresh leaves (known as cilantro leaves) and dried seeds (known as coriander seeds) are most commonly used in cooking.
Cilantro leaves are commonly used in Asian chutneys and curries as well as Mexican salsas and guacamole.
You can buy dried coriander seeds whole or ground. It has a variety of uses and is even used in brewing certain types of beer, particularly Belgian wheat beers.
Indian Chili Powder or Cayenne Pepper:
This spice is made from dried, ground peppers and is used in a variety of cuisines. Don't confuse it with Mexican chili powder, which is mixed with other spices like cumin.
How To Make Masala Mac and Cheese
- Step 1- Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté the onion, ginger and garlic until softened. Add the chopped tomatoes, cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper, turmeric, and salt. Cook until tomatoes break down and mixture starts to thicken.
- Step 2- Melt the butter in a large saucepan or pot over medium heat. Stir in the flour. Cook a minute or two, then whisk in the milk. Cook a few minutes until the sauce starts to thicken. Then stir in 1 ½ cups each of Cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses, whisking until it melts.
- Step 3- Stir the tomato masala (spice) mixture into the cheese sauce.
- Step 4- Add the cooked pasta, peas, and cilantro to the cheese sauce. Stir to combine well.
- Step 5- Pour the mixture into a lightly greased 13 x 9” baking dish. Arrange tomato slices on top of the pasta and sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top.
- Step 6- Bake 30-35 minutes, until cheese is bubbly. Remove from oven and garnish the masala macaroni with fresh chopped cilantro.
- I like to use a microplane zester grater to grate the ginger and garlic for this dish. That way you don't get any large chunks in the sauce. You can also find ginger garlic paste at Indian grocery stores or online.
- If you don't have all of these dried spices, you can substitute a store-bought curry powder or tikka masala powder (which are spice blends).
- This recipe has a mild spice level. For a spicy mac and cheese, increase the amount of chili powder/cayenne pepper.
- For an even heartier dish, you can stir pieces of chicken tikka, tandoori chicken or paneer into this masala mac and cheese.
- This masala macaroni and cheese recipe freezes well so you can make it in advance and store it in the freezer.
You can spice up mac and cheese with a number of spices including garlic powder, onion powder, Italian seasoning, paprika, nutmeg or cayenne pepper. For an Indian-inspired mac and cheese, try adding some ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, chili powder, ginger, and garlic.
Yes, you can freeze mac and cheese. The best way to freeze it is to assemble the dish up to the point of baking it. Then, wrap the baking dish with plastic wrap and aluminum foil and freeze. You can also freeze the cooked mac and cheese. You can cut the cooked mac and cheese into smaller portions and then wrap and freeze the individual portions.
What To Serve With This Dish
I like to serve this masala mac and cheese with a salad on the side like my Tuscan Kale and Apple Salad or Roasted Butternut Squash Salad. You can serve a vegetable on the side like Air Fryer Zucchini or Roasted Asparagus and Grape Tomatoes.
More Asian Recipes
YOUR PATH TO WELLNESS STARTS HERE!
Get my best healthy recipes and tips sent straight to your inbox!
Masala Mac & Cheese
- 12 ounces cavatappi pasta or other medium pasta
- 2 tablespoons neutral-flavored oil like grapeseed or vegetable oil
- 1 cup minced onion
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 2 cups chopped plum tomatoes plus 2 tomatoes, sliced
- 1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 3 cups milk, any type
- 1 ½ cups shredded Medium Cheddar cheese, divided use
- 1 ½ cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese, divided use
- ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro plus extra for garnish
- ¾ cup frozen peas
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Set a large pasta pot filled with salted water to boil over high heat. Cook the pasta 2 minutes less than package directions indicate for al dente. Drain and set aside.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened, 8-10 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and sauté another 1-2 minutes until fragrant, then add the chopped tomatoes, cumin, coriander, cayenne pepper, turmeric, and salt. Cook until tomatoes break down and mixture starts to thicken. Remove from heat and set aside.
- In a large saucepan, heat the butter over medium heat until melted. Add the flour and whisk into the melted butter. Cook for 2 minutes, then gradually whisk in the milk. Cook until the sauce starts to thicken, stirring often. Stir in 1 ¼ cups each of Cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses (reserve the remaining ½ cup of cheese for the topping).
- Pour the tomato masala (spice) mixture from the skillet into the cheese sauce and add the fresh cilantro and peas. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Add the cooked pasta and stir to combine well.
- Pour the mixture into a lightly greased 13 x 9” baking tray. Arrange the tomato slices on top of the pasta and sprinkle the remaining ½ cup of cheese over the top. Bake 30-35 minutes, until cheese is bubbly. Remove from oven and garnish with fresh chopped cilantro. Serve warm.