Cooking in tandoor uses four different techniques. Radiant heat that comes from the pit has effect akin to baking. Direct heat from charcoal allows grilling. The smoke that is produced from dripping marinade gives exclusive smoky flavor to the dishes cooked in tandoor. Hot clay walls produces effect similar to griddling. Flat breads such as naan and tandoori roti are made by sticking them to the hot clay walls of the tandoor.
Importance of Marination in Tandoori Cooking
Marination is an important part of tandoori cooking. Ingredients that are cooked are generally marinated twice. Marinades of almost all tandoori dishes have yogurt as its base. Many herbs and spices are used to give exclusive flavor to dishes. Natural acidity of yogurt cuts through the meat, tenderizes it and allows the flavors of spices to permeate in. Meat is allowed to sit into the marinade for hours.
History of Tandoor takes us back by 5000 years to Indus valley and Harappan civilizations of ancient India. Traces of tandoors were found from the excavation of these historical sites. Use of tandoor however is not limited to only the Indian subcontinent; people use tandoor in West and Central Asia as well. Traces of tandoor have also been found in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. However, modern tandoor was brought to India by the Mughals. Portable tandoor was invented much later during the reigns of Jahangir, a Mughal ruler. It is said that portable tandoor was carried by a team of cooks whenever he travelled.
History of tandoor will be incomplete if we do not mention Guru Nanak Dev – the founder of Sikh religion. He encouraged the use of tandoor. In order to remove caste barriers and promote equality amongst people, he urged them to build sanjha chulha (common oven) in their neighborhood. This concept of community oven not only helped in removing caste and class barriers, but also became a meeting point of women who got an opportunity to chat and gossip around the sanjha chulha.
Modern India: History of Tandoor
Despite the long history of tandoor, tandoori cooking was not common in Delhi till 1947. It was then that the Punjabi refugees brought tandoor to Delhi. Finally tandoori cuisine took its root in India and now there will be hardly anyone who would not salivate on hearing about tandoori chicken, tandoori roti, naan and other delicacies.
Earlier tandoors were set into earth and were fired by wood. You can still find such tandoors in India, Pakistan, and in Afghanistan. In Punjab you can still find communal tandoors. Other type of tandoors are above the ground and are cylindrical clay or metal ovens.
Heat is generated in tandoors traditionally by wood or charcoal that slow burns within the tandoor itself. The heat is controlled by the amount of oxygen that is allowed into the pit. Many tandoors have a small window at the bottom that is opened or closed to control the flow of air and thus oxygen. The walls of tandoor reflect the heat produced by burning charcoal and boost the temperature further that may reach upto 480 C (900 F). In order to maintain high cooking temperature very often these ovens remain lit for long periods.
In place of charcoal gas is used for heating many present day tandoors. Nowadays portable electric tandoors are also used in many homes. These are closer to electric ovens and are made of metal and not clay. All these changes have made cooking in tandoors easier, but food connoisseurs still prefer clay tandoors lit with charcoal for earthy flavors.
The meat is then threaded into skewers and lowered into the tandoor. High temperatures in tandoor allows juices to seal in, resulting in juicier meat as compared to other methods of cooking. Smoke emanating from dripping marinade, and earthy aroma of clay lining of tandoor gives the food an exclusive complex flavor that is unmatched.
Tandoori cooking is a healthy way of cooking food. High temperature in tandoor cooks the food fast making use of external fats such as butter and oil unnecessary.