Ever had something so good you just know whoever made it just isn’t playing fair? Privy to some advantage, trick or secret weapon and no matter how hard you try, or closely you follow a recipe, you never quite get there. For many Indian and south and west Asian chefs, who procure some of tastiest food known to earth, a tandoor oven is that secret weapon.
Though fairly simple at first glance, the magic of Tandoori cooking lies in how much the ancient oven accomplishes in a relatively short time. At once a smoker, barbecue, griddle and convection oven, food that emerges from it’s jug-like belly are bursting with flavors courtesy of it’s ingenious, centuries-old design.
Often constructed from a cylindrical clay (or cement) pot, either freestanding or housed within a second encasement for mobility and/or safety, Traditional tandoor ovens are fueled by wood or charcoal fires made in a reservoir at the bottom of the oven. Most often foods cooked in a tandoor are skewered and placed carefully into the tandoor, while breads are slapped against the inside walls and grilled.
At Baar Baar, a popular Indian gastropub in Manhattan’s East Village, owner and Executive Chef, Sujan Sarkar, uses one to make dishes all across his menu. From simple butter chicken to brunch salmon, prawns and an array of kulchas (stuffed breads). The beauty with tandoori, he tells me, rests in the three main types of cooking; high heat which emanates from the fire below like a barbecue while the drum-like shape causes a convection effect and droppings from the meat toward the flame turn the chamber into a mild smoker. The walls of the oven also act as a griddle where naans and other flatbreads cook in seconds, receiving the flavor trapped in the clay and a light, smokey char.
Sarkar mentions that cooking with a tandoor is not as simple as dropping food in a hot clay drum, however, and one common misstep is not seasoning properly, but it’s not the food he’s referring to. Much like cast iron, the clay insides of a tandoor oven can and should be seasoned. When Sarkar’s team secures a new one (they have several), it is promptly rubbed with a homemade paste of spinach puree, mustard oil and jaggery (unrefined palm sugar cane) and set on low to cook for six full days to reach a desired base. Subsequent cooking, with all it’s circulation of aroma and splattering of juice, only serve to build that flavor over time.
Tandoors also get hot….very hot, sometimes reaching temps as high as 900° Fahrenheit and the clay (or cement) insulate the heat to burn hot for hours, sometimes days, making them incredibly efficient vessels. Because of this heat, it’s essential to prepare any food entering such a brutal environment, which can dry it out in a blink. Sarkar suggests a double marinade for most meats; once with ginger, garlic or mustard oil to tenderize the meat and again, just before cooking, with something dairy-based (yogurt is popular) to achieve maximum moisture.
Tandoors do present logistical problems and any charcoal or wood fire requires either an outdoor space or extremely advanced ventilation, which is why gas versions have enjoyed a surge in popularity. Clay is also high maintenance, thus iron and cement versions have sprung up, but most chefs will tell you they don’t hold flavor quite like clay, and remains the widespread preference.
Home versions are available, but good ones don’t come cheap. An American producer, Homdoor, sells their outdoor clay Tandoors, safely encased in stainless steel and set on wheels, starting $1,000. Versions with fewer bells and whistles can be found for less and may suit just fine, depending on frequency of use.
Tandoor is perhaps most commonly associated with various Indian cuisines – you’ll find simple tandoori meat sections (chicken, lamb and fish) on most any Indian menu – but is used prominently in a number of other Western and Central Asian cuisines, as well. Other fan favorites like chicken tikka masala and lamb korma are cooked first in the tandoor, removed and finished with a rich curry. Firm seafood, able to weather the ravages of a sharp skewer, like shellfish, salmon and monkfish are also often made and enjoyed tandoori style in restaurants around the world.
Though less popular these days, Sarkar recalls communal tandoors in his native India. Large outdoor ovens shared by a building or complex would stay lit for days, sometimes more, where folks could gather, cook, eat and socialize.
Tandoor ovens have been found in many digs by archaeologists and pegged to periods dating as far back as the Egyptian pyramids. Despite such a primitive origin and countless advancements the original design and method proves advanced beyond comprehension and chefs still regard it as such. A true classic, tried and true.
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