The Art of Tandoori-style Cooking – Indian BBQ
Nothing gets Indians more hyped up than Bollywood, Cricket, or Tandoori! Mouth-watering and tummy-filling, it has spread all over the world to be enjoyed by all.
In this article, we’ll explore the Tandoori cooking style. We discuss the history, the workings, and the recipes that make Tandoori a hit.
What is Tandoori-Style Cooking?
When we hear Tandoori, most of us associate it with the dish, Tandoori Chicken. But like most legendary dishes, its name has become synonymous with the cooking method used to prepare the dish!
Tandoori-style cooking is an Indian method of marinating and cooking large chunks of skewered meat over an intense charcoal fire inside a cylindrical shaped oven called Tandoor. The meats are marinated in a Tandoori mixture of yogurt and spices before being skewered and placed vertically in the Tandoor oven.
The meats are colored in a signature bright red or yellow color, which even has its own name, i.e., Tandoor rang (which translates to Tandoori color). The red color Tandoori has more of the red chili powder and cayenne pepper (and sometimes red food coloring), while the yellow color depends on the amount of turmeric used.
The meats used are chicken, lamb, fish. But vegetarians don’t fret! India has the highest percentage of vegetarians in the world (38%). This means vegetarians can enjoy a variety of food in a Tandoori BBQ.
The cottage cheese, known as Paneer, is so tasty that both vegetarians and meat-eaters share a common love for it!
What is a Tandoor?
A Tandoor is a cylindrical metal or traditionally clay oven used for cooking.
It’s widely used in the Indian subcontinent, the middle east, and even parts of Central Asia!
The Tandoor is often one meter high and sunk into the ground or an enclosure. The fire is built in the bottom with wood or charcoal. This fire heats the walls of the pot, and the air inside can reach temperatures as high as 480-500 °C (800-900 °F)! The scorching hot and smokey fire gives the meat its distinctive flavor.
Nowadays, modern Tandoors are run on gas or electricity.
Remarkably, once the fire gets going and the pot is heated up, they maintain a constant temperature for a few hours and require very little additional fuel to keep going.
Other than Tandoori style meats, other popular dishes like Indian flatbreads and Tikka are made in a Tandoor. Indian flatbreads, like Tandoori roti, naan, and kulcha, are made by slapping dough onto the side of the Tandoor, where it gets cooked quickly. Tikka is very similar to Tandoori, except that Tikka uses smaller pieces of meat (chicken, lamb, and fish), which can be eaten by itself or added to Indian gravies.
How Does a Tandoor Oven Work?
To be a factory of deliciousness, a Tandoor Oven relies on four factors:
- The direct heat from the charcoal or wood fire allows grilling.
- The smoke produced from the marinade dripping onto the charcoal or wood fire gives the meat a smokey flavor.
- The radiant heat within the pit is similar to baking.
- The hot clay walls of the Tandoor act as a griddle-like surface for making Indian flatbread.
The heat produced in a Tandoor is controlled by the amount of airflow in the Tandoor. There is usually a small opening at the bottom of the Tandoor that can be adjusted to control the amount of air for wood combustion. The wider you open it, the stronger the fire will burn.
Tandoor cooking is one of the fastest cooking methods. This is because the meat gets heated both from the inside and outside. The Tandoor cooks the meat from the outside, while the skewers heat the meat from the inside.
What is the Origin of Tandoori-style cooking?
The history of Tandoor takes us back 5000 years ago!
Traces of the Tandoor being used can be seen in excavation sites of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, two key sites part of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation.
In ancient times, the Tandoor was a cylindrical clay pot made in all sizes set in the earth and heated by wood. It was used to bake bread. You can see Tandoor and its variations of cooking in a Tandoor in parts of India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
In Punjab, one of the states of India, you can even find communal Tandoors. This was because of Guru Nanak Dev. He was the founder of the Sikh religion that is widely practiced in that state. He encouraged to build and use a community Tandoor to promote equality and remove caste barriers. This is one reason why the caste system is less prevalent in Punjab than in other states in India.
Tandoori cooking in modern times
Even though Tandoori cooking was prevalent in Punjab, it wasn’t very popular in other parts of the country.
But that changed because of Kundan Lal Gujral, a Punjabi. He was the first to make Tandori Chicken as we know it today. Initially, he made the dish in his restaurant, called Moti Mahal, in the Peshawar area of British India. But after the Partition of India, he moved to Delhi and set up a restaurant with the same name. It soon became so popular that even Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, became a regular customer.
After Tandoori cooking took root in the Indian culinary culture, it’s almost impossible to find a person whose mouth doesn’t water at the mention of Tandoori chicken!
Tandoori Dishes and Recipes
An essential factor for preparing a mouth-watering dish is the marinade used.
Tandoori cuisine is all about the whole skinned chicken and pieces of lamb, which are marinated in spices and yogurt and then basted with ghee (clarified butter).
Spices like ginger, turmeric, chilies, and black pepper are used.
Yogurt acts as a tenderizer and balances the spices used in the marinade. The longer you marinate the meat, the more the spicy flavor permeates the meat.
The combination of the high temperatures, the clay material, metal skewers, and the spices used all play their part in giving the food its unique and unmatched earthy flavor.
However, owning a Tandoor isn’t the most practical thing, so here are some recipes you can try with an oven, grill, or even a stovetop!
Even using a pizza stone oven works well to get a Tandoor-like cooking experience.
You can always get Tandoori chicken masala in your nearby Indian supermarket, but here’s the original recipe from scratch!
You can enjoy Tandoori Chicken with the stovetop method even if you don’t have an oven or grill.
- 1 kg skinless whole chicken
- Clarified butter (ghee) or Refined oil for basting
(Basting is required for the oven roasting method)
- 1½ tbsp lime juice
- 1 tsp red chili powder
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ cup yogurt
- 1 tsp garlic paste
- 1 tsp ginger paste
- ½ tsp black salt
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp Kasoori methi (Fenugreek)
Garam masala is a combination of roasted and ground cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and black pepper. You can find this in any Indian supermarket.
- Wash chicken inside and outside thoroughly and pat dry. Make 2 deep incisions on the chicken breast and drumsticks.
- Combine the ingredients from the first marinade- lime juice, chili powder, and salt. Rub the marinade on the chicken and leave it aside for one hour.
- After one hour, combine all the ingredients of the second marinade and rub it on the chicken and leave it for three hours.
Method 1: Using a barbecue grill
- Get the Barbecue grill ready by getting it as hot as you can. Keep it closed so you can trap the heat to mimic a Tandoor. Lift it only when you have to add the meat in.
- Put it on skewers or just slap it on the grill and keep a close watch so that it doesn’t get burnt.
- Take it off when you start to see the edges slightly charring.
Method 2: Using an oven
- Clean up the oven and then preheat it to 200°C/390°F. (Or slightly higher, depending on the model of the oven)
- Place the marinated chicken on an oven rack and brush it with some ghee before placing it on the upper rack holder.
- Place a tray lined with foil on a lower rack holder (below the grill rack) to collect the dripping marinade.
- Bake for about 15 minutes.
- Take the rack out, flip the chicken over, and brush on some ghee.
- Put it back in and continue baking until you see the edges charring (approximately 30 minutes).
Method 3: Stovetop on a Skillet
- Heat the pan and add about 1 to 2 tbsp of oil.
- When the oil turns hot, add the chicken in. Keep the heat on medium.
- After 3-4 minutes, flip the chicken onto the other side. If you have marinade leftover, smear it on the pieces.
- Flip them over again after 3-4 mins
- If you want to spice up the chicken further, mix some red chili powder and oil and slather it on. If you don’t want to make it spicy, skip this step.
- Keep flipping the meat on either side until the meat is soft and cooked.
- Plate the chicken and enjoy!