oh, for that tandoor taste!

Posted on Analysis Jan 2010 - by Tandoori Magazine
oh, for that tandoor taste!

Cooking in the tandoor gives food a deliciously discernible flavour. Tandoori looks at the renowned cooking method that no restaurant can do without.


Indian restaurants have come so far now that it’s hard to imagine a time when cooking in the tandoor was a method considered unique and very rare. Yet, as one looks into the annals of Indian restaurant history in the UK, as the sector began to flourish in the 1970s and ‘80s, the tandoor became synonymous with Indian cooking.


So much so that even to this day - and this applies particularly to high street and small rural Indian restaurants - the term ‘tandoori’ forms part of the restaurant name. Old fashioned as that may look, the fact is that tandoori dishes form a very important part of Indian restaurants and frankly, Indian restaurants are all the better for it. After all, it’s difficult to say “no” to a dish delivers a deliciously smokey piece of meat, is chargrilled to perfection and is tender and juicy. Hardly any wonder then that the majority of Indian restaurants have a tandoori section all its own on menus.


“I remember during the late ‘70s,” says Riaz Younus, who runs the Elaichi House restaurant in Manchester, “when my father opened his restaurant the Spice Palace, in Birmingham. It took him a while to install a tandoor and even then we didn’t use it all the time except may be for Thursday though to Saturday when the restaurant would get busy. The tandoor had a certain novelty factor to it and the items that my father prepared in it were quite limited compared to what chefs can do today. But it clearly had an impact on the customers because you could tell from the comments they made at the time how much they enjoyed it.”


So what is a tandoor? It’s a purpose built, cylindrical, (albeit more egg-shaped), clay oven cooks food at high heat, giving it a very characteristic flavour. Traditionally, the tandoor has been fired by charcoal, but contemporary tandoors are usually gas-fired. It’s used primarily for the cooking of meats and breads - particularly naan bread.


The history of the tandoor and its origins have been much discussed. It’s even difficult to pin down how and when it came to the UK and which restaurant it first came to be installed in. Some say that the tandoor originated in the ancient civilizations of the Indus Valley, in the Subcontinent, while others point to the tandoor being invented in Egypt. Even different names have been attributed to the tandoor - ‘tandur’ and ‘tannur’ being two - though they derive from similar terms.


Either way, no matter where this most indispensable of Indian restaurant kitchen appliances has its roots or which UK restaurant set its eyes on it first, the tandoor has made its mark on the Indian restaurant scene. From staples such as tandoori chicken, tandoori lamb chops, lamb tikka and seekh kebab to tandoori quail, tandoori salmon, tandoori monkfish and tandoori king prawns, Indian food lovers lap up these items day in day out up and down the country.


“There isn’t a single day in my restaurant when there aren’t several tables ordering tandoori dishes,” notes Younus. “It isn’t just the taste of these meats, but the health factor as well which attracts customers. There is little in the way of oil and while there may be a little bit of fat on the meat, it’s there purely to give the meat a bit of added flavour. Otherwise, the flavoursome taste comes from the marinade and the chargrilled effect. The advantage of tandoori items is that you can have them as starters, as well as main items with just a side vegetable item and that’s a complete meal.”


One of the leading names in the manufacture of high-quality tandoori ovens is the Tandoori Clay Oven Company in West London, which has been producing ovens since 1974.


“In those days,” says the company’s managing director, Shahi Gulian, “tandoors were a fixture and not moveable so they were a bit cumbersome, albeit quite solid. Of course, things have changed considerably since then. Tandoors last much longer now. We have our own mix of different clays that we use and we fire them to a high temperature for durability.


“While we are constantly researching and developing new types of tandoori ovens, one of the current trends we are seeing developing more is that some restaurants are almost looking at the tandoor as part of the décor. Restaurants have theatre kitchens and open plan cooking areas where customers can easily view the food preparation so it’s important that the tandoor also looks good and becomes a design feature.”

One of the ways in which some modern Indian restaurants have adapted to emulate the tandoori taste is to grill meats or even dry-roast in the oven.


“We don’t have a tandoor,” says Mohit Khariwal, manager of Imli restaurant in London’s Soho. “This is because we have a lack of space and also because we are a fast service establishment, yet we have a number of dishes on our menu which give exactly the same taste as you would get from something being cooked in the tandoor. Chicken makhni, for instance, has always had chicken which is redolent of chicken tikka masala.


“So what we do is to have the same balance of spicing and oven-roast the chicken so the dry heat brings out the texture of the meat. We also pan-grill certain items; the difference between that and cooking in the tandoor being that we have to use some oil on the pan so that the meat doesn’t stick. As it happens, we are about to introduce a new menu which will have a whole grill section in it. You are grilling the meat at high temperature and the nutrients don’t break down or escape easily. At the end of the day though, I don’t think it matters too much whether you are using a tandoor or a grill so long as you get the marination right and the chef knows how to balance out the flavours.”


Marko Delic, managing director of Shaan Tandoori, in Watford, which manufactures a range of tandoors, states that the tandoor and tandoori cooking is now such a permanent part of menus that it’s impossible to imagine an Indian restaurant without it.


“The tandoori oven is at the heart of every Indian restaurant kitchen,” he notes. “How can it not be? It’s easy to install, manageable and doesn’t take up too much space either. The main thing to remember though is that once you have cooked the meat in the tandoor, the taste is incredible. Not only is the meat cooked right the way through and moist, but it caramelizes on the top giving it a superbly finger-licking appeal.”

 

Chef Jiwan Lal

Barbur Braserie, south east London


There isn’t that much that can’t be cooked in the tandoor these days, particularly when it comes to meat dishes. Like so many restaurants, tandoori items are some of the most popular on our menu and I tend to make use of the tandoor in whatever way I can for different ingredients.


I think tradition and perception has had a lot to do in the past where chefs wouldn’t use certain meats and vegetables in the tandoor. Venison for instance, has become very popular. As more Indian chefs have developed their talent and know-how of what’s available in the UK, they have got to know what works well in the tandoor and what doesn’t.


Even fish, which is so readily available in the UK and comes in so many different varieties, has opened up more possibilities for chefs.


Of course, the spices and the marination one uses are crucial to the flavouring of what you are cooking. One of our best selling dishes is tandoori rump of lamb, which I serve with bhindi dopiaza and onion jus. I marinate it twice. The first marination I do is about 24 hours prior to cooking. I’ll marinate the lamb - on which I leave just a little bit of fat just to give it that extra flavour - with ginger and garlic paste, kasturi methi, garam masala and some degi mirch. For tenderizing, I put black salt and nutmeg. The good thing about the first marination is that all the spices and seasoning are absorbed by the meat. The second marination on the meat is done about two to three hours before the cooking. I will use hung yoghurt on it and then again degi mirch, garam masala and kasturi methi. The accompanying onion jus, which I serve on the side in a small dish, I will make from the juices of the meat and give it a nice and subtle taste of garam masala. For tenderizing, the best and most common things to use are black salt, yoghurt, raw papaya, pineapple and nutmeg.


Meat-wise, I don’t have a preference as to what I think works the best in the tandoor, though I think lamb has the edge because it tends to have more flavour compared to white meat and is also more receptive to being chargrilled. That said, I do feel that tandoori vegetables are all too easily forgotten on Indian restaurant menus. In recent years, tandoori broccoli has started to show up on menus but there are so many other options too.


Other than broccoli, there are sweet potatoes, which I use to make chaat, along with courgettes and also parsnips. At Babur, I make tandoori-roasted parsnip pattice as well as dishes such as roast vegetable jalfrezi parcel which I serve with cumin rice. Let’s not forget fruit either, though fruits such as apple and banana might not be suitable as they caramalise very quickly. Pear and pineapple is perfect for the tandoor and at Babur I do a pineappale and kumquat chaat.


I find the tandoor to be a highly versatile tool and the reason all chefs need to take advantage of it even more is to be imaginative and flexible, and that will give them more options on their menus and more choice for their customers.


Sample Tandoori Dishes
Barbur Brasserie


Minted lamb chops with pickled yoghurt and kalonji

(marinated in yoghurt and green herbs, from the tandoor)


Red sandalwood ostrich

(marinated with beetroot and ground fennel seed)


Khumb shashlik with tamarind apricot sauce

(tandoori kebabs of yoghurt-marinated mushroom, capsicum, red onion)


Tamarind-glazed quail breast

(from the tandoor, with bubble ‘n’ squeak boneless leg)


Batak ka tikka

(well-spiced marinated duck breast cooked in the tandoor)


Tandoori rump of lamb

(served with bhindi dopiaza and onion)

 

 

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