India? Barbecue? Mention Indian cooking and what most comes to mind are curries, chutneys, and rice dishes. What you may not realize is that India is one of the world’s great barbecuing capitals, home to a unique style of live-fire cooking called tandoori. Named for a giant clay cooking vessel, tandoori combines the charcoal flavor of Western-style grilling with the fall-off-the-bone tenderness of food cooked in a barbecue pit or oven.
Manjit Gill is the executive chef at Bukhara, a restaurant located in New Delhi’s Maurya Sheraton Hotel. The secret to tandoori cooking, he explained the day of my visit, are the ovens. He pointed to the tandoors, the waist-high, urn-shaped clay ovens that are the focal point of the restaurant’s exhibition kitchen. These sort of ovens have been in use in India and Central Asia for at least 5,000 years, and they turn up in Iran, where they’re called tanoors, and in the Caucasus Mountains, where they’re called tones. They’re an indispensable element of northern Indian cooking.
According to Gill, the term tandoor may come from the Sanskrit word kandu (a bowl-shaped vessel) or perhaps from the Persian words tata andar, literally "hot inside." That’s putting it mildly. It takes Gill three hours to preheat the tandoors at Bukhara by the time the food goes in for cooking, the internal temperature exceeds 800°F.
This blast-furnace level heat handsomely chars bull’s horn peppers and cauliflower (popular Indian grilled vegetables) in a matter of minutes and produces raan gosht (baby leg of goat marinated in yogurt and chickpea flour) so tender you can pull it apart with your fingers. (Which is how Indians eat it.) Kebabs emerge dappled with Rembrandtesque browns, while breads baked directly on the walls of the tandoor come out as smoky and light as wood-oven-baked pizzas.
Lest the lightning-quick activity of the chefs give you the impression that tandoori is fast food, know that each spice-scented mouthful is the result of a lot of advance preparation. Meats and vegetables are patiently marinated-sometimes twice-in tangy pastes of yogurt or yogurt cheese and mouth-puckering mixtures of vinegar, tamarind, or lemon juice. Pungent purées of ginger and garlic build the background flavor, while spice mixes, called masalas, weave intricate tapestries of taste. The marinating period can last anywhere from 30 minutes to overnight, and it tenderizes meats so that they quickly cook to perfection.
Once marinated, the foods are threaded onto long metal skewers and lowered into the tandoor. The vertical position of the skewers is another reason why tandoori fare is so succulent: The juices drip on the food below, not on the coals. Additionally, most kebabs are generously basted with ghee (clarified butter) before serving.
Vegetarians get short shrift at most North American barbecue joints. Not so in India, where a sizable percentage of the population of one billion doesn’t eat meat. Vegetarian kebabs include paneer tikka (fresh cheese kebabs coated with chickpea flour) and tandoori aloo (spit-roasted potatoes stuffed with a fragrant mixture of cashew nuts, raisins, and coriander). The traditional accompaniments for tandoori include mint chutney, cooling raita (a yogurt-based condiment), and an astonishing assortment of breads.
Bread was the first food cooked in a tandoor, and it remains a staple. Every village in northern India has an open-air bakery, where roti (whole-wheat flat breads), paratha (buttered, layered flat breads), naan (sweet, yeasted white breads), and delicate roomali (crêpe-like breads whose silken softness lives up to their name, "handkerchief bread") emerge piping hot from the tandoor. If you’re lucky enough to dine at Bukhara with a large party, order the "family" naan, a huge, bowl-shaped bread that measures a full 2 feet across.
While it’s impossible to make authentic tandoori fare at home without a tandoor, you can produce a reasonable approximation using a backyard charcoal or gas grill. The trick is to set up the grill for grateless grilling, so the meat doesn’t touch the grate. After all, the tandoor is only part of what makes Indian barbecue so distinctive. The marinades, spices, and basting play a significant role, too-so much so that when properly done, you can’t lose, no matter which way you grill the dish.
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