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Food Stories: Tandoori Chicken

Updated August 12, 2015

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Cooking is not about exact measurements or exact techniques, instead it is an ‘art with heart’ of somewhat following a recipe, going with approximates and tweaking if required.

If tomatoes are not available, find a substitute, or not; turmeric, cumin, coriander or any spice label with an empty bottle must not stand in the way of you and the perfect meal.

Cooking involves loving yourself and the ones you cook for, it’s about learning the fine art of creating something absolutely beautiful; much like parenthood.

My research on Chicken Tikka last week led me to its obvious cousin, Tandoori Chicken, and there is some obvious confusion about the two.

The ingredients for the two are similar but only so much, Tandoori Chicken has more spices and its traditional cooking is in a tandoor (clay oven), while the tikka is cooked on a traditional home or commercial grill. Needless to say, both can be made to perfection in an oven also.

Tandoori cooking originated in ancient Harappa and Moenjodaro; it is also widely believed that tandoors, dating back almost 2500 years, were unearthed in Rajesthan, India.

New York Times writer, Steven Raichlen, discusses the origin of the tandoor and its spread to the world in his article titled, A Tandoor Oven Brings India's Heat to the Backyard;

The first tandoors were used to bake flatbread, a tradition that survives in the sub-continental roti, Afghan naan and Turkmen chorek.

Soft white balls of yeasted dough are rolled into flat cakes, which are draped over a round cloth pillow called a gadhi and pressed onto the hot inner walls of the tandoor, where they puff, blister and brown in minutes, [that is how naan is made in Pakistan and India].

The searing heat and smoke, and moisture-retaining properties of the tandoor, make it equally effective for roasting meat on vertical skewers, a delicacy mentioned by the Indian surgeon Sushruta as early as the eighth century B.C. Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal, held the tandoor in such high esteem he had a portable metal model constructed to take on his travels, [to make his favourite chicken and lamb dishes].

In spite of its ancient origins and utter simplicity, the tandoor produces startlingly sophisticated results, including smoky flatbreads that puff like pillows, and roasted meats of uncommon succulence.

Tandoor cooking uses four distinct techniques. Direct heat rises from the charcoal, a process akin to grilling. The hot clay walls of the oven cook bread, similar to griddling or skillet-roasting. Radiant heat in the belly of the tandoor produces results similar to convection baking. And smoke, which occurs as the marinade and meat juices drip onto the hot coals, adds fragrance and flavour.

Originally, meat was not cooked in Indian tandoors because it was difficult to achieve sufficient succulent tenderness. However, under the process of meat tenderising ingredients such as lemon juice, yogurt, raw papaya and raw pineapple, meat was introduced to the heat of the tandoor.

It is claimed that the modern day Tandoori Chicken is the brainchild of Kundan Lal Gujral. Gujral was born in Chakwal and his idea for the new ageTandoori Chicken was introduced to the subcontinent in pre-partition Peshawar.

Though it is to be noted that chicken and lamb were being made in the tandoor from the time of Moghul Emperor Jahangir, the ingredients, however, were different from the ones used in tandoori chicken by Gujral.

Prior to 1947 Gujral owned a restaurant in the part of the subcontinent that falls, currently, in the Pakistani territory, and at the time of partition he wrapped up his business and moved to Delhi.

The tandoori chicken recipe I share with you today is by my favourite chef, but I’ve tweaked it just a tad. Here it is, from my kitchen to yours.

Ingredients

1 chicken (whole) with barbeque cuts (skin off)
½ cup yogurt
2 tsp. red chili powder (or to taste)
Salt to taste
3 tbsp. lemon juice
¼ tsp. black pepper powder
½ tsp. carom seeds, 1 tbsp. coriander seeds, 1 tsp. cumin seeds, roasted and grinded
½ tsp. turmeric
½ tsp. garam masala
1 tbsp. fresh ginger garlic
¼ cup oil

Method

Mix all ingredients, rub the marinade on chicken and let sit for 4 to 5 hours. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Set the chicken on the rack of the basting pan and bake, let the oil and juices drip on to the basting pan. Fifteen minutes into the oven, remove entire chicken and pan, pour collected juices and oil in a bowl and baste the chicken.

Set chicken back in the oven, and baste chicken every 10 minutes for the next 30 minutes.

Once tender, set in platter, pour juices on chicken and serve with hot naan, sliced onions soaked in lemon juice or vinegar and a side of raita.

—Photos from Creative Commons