Where Does Tandoori Chicken Come From?
Tandoori chicken is one of the most well-known Indian dishes.
But do you know where tandoori chicken – and many other Indian dishes, like naan – come from, and how they’re cooked?
One of the keys behind the delicious flavor of tandoori chicken comes from the tandoor, which refers to the particular type of oven in which this dish – and many other Indian dishes – is cooked.
The tandoor is one of the keys to Indian cooking, and an essential part of any modern Indian restaurant. So, in this article, we’ll take a look at the history of the tandoor, explain some of the benefits of its use, and talk about some dishes that are traditionally cooked in a tandoor oven.
Read on, and learn everything you ever needed to know about the tandoor oven!
The History Of Traditional Tandoor Ovens
The tandoor is thought to have its origins in ancient times, when cooks in India would simply dig a large clay pit, and fill it with hot, fired wood and charcoal, reaching extremely hot temperatures – and often leaving the fires lit for days at a time. Most tandoors can easily reach temperatures of more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
In India, the most well-known type of tandoor is the Punjabi tandoor. This oven is usually made of clay and is a bell-shaped oven, which resembles a very thick, heavy jar or vase, and is usually several feet in height, and has an opening of at least 1-2 feet in diameter. The Punjabi tandoor can be set into the earth and fired with wood and charcoal, or it can be used above-ground.
The tandoor was actually popularized somewhat by Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of the Sikh religion, in the 15th century. He sought to eliminate caste barriers in India, and encouraged the construction of “common ovens” or sanjha chulha in neighborhoods – creating a community based around cooking. These ovens were, most often, tandoors.
Understanding Modern Tandoors
The rise in popularity of tandoor cooking did not actually take place until the 1940s – when Punjabi refugees in Delhi brought some of the secrets of the tandoor with them, and several restaurateurs began cooking the dish that we know today as tandoori chicken, as well as other popular dishes like butter chicken and naan bread. Moti Mahal, a restaurant in Peshawar, was instrumental in the popularization of the tandoor.
Today, you won’t be able to go to any Indian restaurant in the country without having a few of your dishes cooked in a tandoor. Tandoor cooking is pretty much synonymous with Indian food in the United States.
The modern tandoor has changed quite a bit, though. For the sake of convenience, most tandoor ovens in the United States no longer use wood or charcoal – but rather, they use natural gas as the source of heat.
The rest of the tandoor is relatively identical in design to the old, wood-fired clay tandoors that would be set into the earth, and left to smolder for days. Large, thick clay walls help keep the temperature of the oven consistent and keep in the heat, and a large, barrel-shaped interior provides plenty of room for cooking dishes over the intense heat.
There are some tandoors that are made with traditional techniques, and still use wood or coals. Proponents of these tandoors believe they provide a better flavor. This type of tandoor usually has a door or opening in the side, through which more fuel can be added, and spent charcoal and wood can be removed. They are not very common in the United States, however.
What Are The Benefits Of Tandoor Cooking?
So, why is cooking in a tandoor so important to modern Indian cuisine? What are the benefits of cooking using a tandoor, compared to grilling, cooking on a stove, or using a traditional oven? Find out now!
- Enhanced flavor, smokiness – Most meats are cooked in a tandoor by skewering them and resting one end on the floor of the tandoor. This means that all of the juices and fats of these meats drip to the bottom of the tandoor – and then disintegrate into smoke, which helps season the meat, vegetables, bread, and any other food that may be in the tandoor. This, in turn, gives food cooked in a tandoor oven a very distinctive flavor.
- Extremely fast cooking times – Tandoors can cook food extremely quickly. Naan, roti, and other flatbread can be slapped against the side and cooked in just a few seconds, and meat and vegetables usually only take a few minutes.This is not just because of the high heat of a tandoor, but because the food is exposed to four different kinds of cooking at once. The coals and wood (or natural gas, in a modern tandoor) expose the food to live fire. The heat of the coals or gas gives off radiant heat. The shape of the tandoor encourages convection (the moving of hot air). Finally, the juices and fat that drips onto the floor of the tandoor smoke the food.Because of this, the tandoor is an extremely fast and effective method of cooking food, making it ideal for quick-serve restaurants.
- Sears meat to seal juices – The high heat and convection of a tandoor helps to quickly cook meat and seal the outside with a caramelized layer of sugars, and creates a crunchy layer of fat and protein. This, in turn, helps “seal” a lot of the juices into the meat. Despite the high heat of a tandoor, the meat cooked in the oven remains extremely juicy and delicious.
For these three reasons – and quite a few more – tandoors are a must-have for just about any Indian restaurant, whether they opt for a traditional, coal-fired vessel or a modern, natural-gas powered tandoor.
What Dishes Are Made In Tandoors?
Most of the meat that’s incorporated into your favorite Indian dishes is probably cooked inside a tandoor. Tandoori chicken is, of course, cooked in a tandoor. Most flatbreads like naan are also cooked in a tandoor – the dough is rolled out and “slapped” against the side of the oven, and it cooks extremely quickly. This helps give naan its bubbly, crispy texture. Other flatbreads like roti and chapatis can also be cooked in this way.
Most meat cooked in Indian restaurants is also cooked using a tandoor. The meat is cooked in the tandoor, then removed and used in dishes like chicken and lamb tikka. Kebabs are usually cooked directly in the tandoor and served on a skewer.
Why Is Tandoori Chicken Red?
Don’t try to deny it – this question has crossed your mind! Why is tandoori chicken such a bright red color? Does it have something to do with the tandoor, and how it’s cooked?
Well, yes and no. Due to the intense heat and rapid cooking of a tandoor, Indian cuisine focuses on a lot of marinades for meat. These marinades often consist of yogurt that includes spices like garam masala, ginger, cumin, garlic, cayenne pepper, and whatever else is required for the dish to be flavored properly. The meat is soaked in this marinade for a long time before it’s cooked.
The marinade helps keep the meat soft and juicy when exposed to the extreme heat of the tandoor. It’s also responsible for giving the meat its color. You guessed it – the color of tandoori chicken comes from the spices it’s seasoned with!
At least, this is mostly true. Spicy versions of tandoori chicken are colored by red chili powder and cayenne pepper, which gives it its trademark, burning-red hue. However, these spices cannot be used in large enough amounts to color the chicken properly if the dish is intended to be milder. If a mild version of tandoori chicken is required, food coloring is usually used to provide it with its blood-red color.
Uniquely, tandoori chicken is not always red. In most US restaurants, spices or food coloring are used to achieve the red color that is traditionally associated with the dish. But in some other parts of the world, a high amount of turmeric is used, with less chili powder and cayenne. This gives the tandoori chicken a bright yellow or orange color.
Know Where Your Next Tandoori Chicken Order Is Coming From!
We hope this quick guide has been fun and informative, and helped you learn a bit more about traditional tandoor cooking, and how it’s been incorporated into Americanized Indian cuisine.
Next time you order tandoori chicken, you’ll know exactly where it’s coming from – and how it’s being cooked!