Saturday, November 24, 2007

So what's a tandoor anyway?

"Ninety nine per cent of Indians do not have a tandoor", says Camellia Panjabi, author of several Indian recipe books. This may be true of Indian homes, but the tandoor - the Indian clay oven - certainly has pride of place in restaurants all over Delhi.

In a small nondescript eatery, I saw this man making tandoori naans on a quiet afternoon. On his left, you can see the dough rolled out flat and ready for the oven. On his other side is his basket of finished naans.

In the middle is the tandoor, a large curved clay urn. Inside, it's exactly the sort of shape that you imagine from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (remember how the thieves hid in urns and died a grisly death in boiling oil?). Charcoal is traditionally used to fire the tandoor, but dry sticks and dried cowdung are also used. The curved shape of the tandoor makes it blisteringly hot in the middle section of the urn, whereas the top portions are cool.

Traditional Indian tandoors are usually sunk into the ground. In small eateries such as this one, one section of the cooking area contains a raised platform, into which the tandoor is sunk.

The tandoor handler climbs up on the platform, from where he masterminds the entire affair. From below, a couple of assistants roll out the dough into evenly shaped naans. These are then quickly stuck to the inside wall of the tandoor.

The real trick is to quickly slap the naan on the tandoor wall, make sure it's stuck firmly, and pull your hand out before the skin blisters. Temperatures inside a tandoor typically go up to 480°C (900°F). See how thick the rolled naans are? That's what helps to stick it easier. One side of the naan is cooked by the heat of the tandoor wall, the other side is browned by the coal fire. And when it comes to the table, it still carries the wonderful earthy smell of the claypot.

Meats, of course, can't stick to the tandoor walls, so they're placed on skewers. Because there is no braising, sautéing or broiling in this style of cooking, only tender meats can be cooked in a tandoor. Typical marinades used to tenderize the meat are yoghurt and lemon. Here's a really good step-by-step tandoori chicken recipe, if you want to try your hand at it.

They say tandoors evolved somewhere in Syria, although I'm not sure. Among the earliest tandoors that archaeologists have discovered are those from the Indus Valley Civilization, dated around 2600 BC. From the New Kingdom period in Egypt (1539 - 1069 BC), here's an interesting painting showing how bread was baked in tandoors.

In the last 5000 years or so, this style of cooking has spread all over the world and is now among the most popular things going. Delhi is a great place to eat some of the best tandoori food in India. Check out Burrp for Delhi restaurant recommendations.

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