new Things I Ate in Cambodia: A Field Guide to The Tandoor

Friday, January 09, 2009

A Field Guide to The Tandoor

The Indian subcontinent is ruled by the tandoor oven, a big clay device in which meat and bread and other things are cooked. Tandoor ovens, super heated and long burning, are encountered all across central America, turning out delicous and spiced food from Kabul to Kerala. The ovens date to almost before time, far as anyone can tell: India's very-first Harappa people used them to make their suppers, and even the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh sees fit to give the tandoor oven a brief if atmospheric cameo. Tandoor-workers (themselves shriveled up and gently roasted as the food) perform many tasks: they spike meat onto kebabs, fish out leg-of-lamb and chicken parts from the seething charcoals, and slap rotis and naan onto the oven's clay walls. These heat-impervious men are among the world's great culinary heros and should be properly honored some day, as they create plate after plate of succulent meats and vegetables - but I digress. The cooked tandoor food will be served to business men and kids on motorbikes and people on packaged tours, and many more then I can possibly name.

There are far too many kinds of tandoor delicacies and new ones seem to be invented all the time- but here, we have prepared a list or a field guide, which can be clipped out and put in your pocket and stained with grease and juices.

Tandoori chicken is the cover girl of the tandoor-oven pantheon, the Salma Hayek of the lineup, the Taste Which Everyone Knows. Tandoori chicken has ambled across continents and across nations, findings its way into African fast food, Japanese pizza pies, Cincinnati instant-microwave-meals and British submarine sandwiches. This is because it very, very, delicious. Skinless chicken is marinated with spices (and a bit of red food coloring) and cooked til' just right, spices seeping all the way through the meat and reaching the red-stained bone. There is a lot of heinous tandoori chicken out there, especially in the USA, but a really good version will make you spit at the concept of vegetarianism. Tender, juicy meat beneath a crisp and slightly fatty skinless crust, perhaps accented with lemon juice and cilantro yogurt sauce and onion: too perfect:

Chicken tikka is, simply enough, marinated chunks of chicken (usually white meat) charred up a bit in a tandoor oven. They function as one of India's favorite Men Drinking Beer snacks, in hot contention with chili chicken. It can be encountered in various incarnations, from spicier to garlicky and so on and so forth but are a dependable (and boneless) snacky.

(Photo jacked from, oddly enough, a Milanese Indian restaurant.)

Boti kebabs are tender chunks of lamb muscle meat, marinated yogurt and spices and cooked until falling apart. They have a rich, decadent buttery texture in their best incarnations and are absolutely irrestible. They are especially popular in Mumbai and are eaten on pretty much any decent pretext for snacking. I especially liked the tender little nibbles served up by deeply suspicious Muslim kebab-makers from the neighborhood stands near the Taj hotel, perhaps eaten with a side of tandoori gobi or chili-sauce drizzled bhindi masala. They are not particularly difficult to make in the oven and I really advise every sane carnivore to eat them at least once or twice or a zillion times.

The Galouti Kebab is made of mutton that has been ground to just about nothing then made into a patty and cooked and cooked and cooked. They have a fine and gentle consistency and can be eaten by just about anyone, even those too lazy to chew or someone who has just undergone invasive dental surgery. Shah Jahan used to eat small portions of them while looking across the water from his prison at the Taj Mahal, in his imprisoned dotage, though they may easily be enjoyed in happier times then that.

Machi tikka kebabs are made of fish and especially enjoyed by the people of Goa and other Southern countries, who couldn't find lamb to save their lives anyway. Insofar as I can tell, tuna is most often used, and marinated in yogurt and spices for a nice healthy time and charred to tender perfection in an oven. They are best in Mumbai and other coastal towns, but can be procured pretty much anywhere - especially delicious with cilantro-yogurt sauce, eaten when cream-infused lamb curries are beginning to grate on the pysche and the digestive tract.

India is a vegetarian-supportive nation, and it stands to reason that vegetables are given the tandoori treatment: and how delicious they become. Cauliflower, India's seeming vegetable of choice, attains bizarrely transcedent levels of flavor when soaked in yogurt and turmeric and charred a bit: the innocent sprouts take on a rich, creamy, slightly perfumed taste, a million trillion miles removed from the sickly cauliflower-cheese casseroles of American larders. I survived on a diet of roughly 40% tandoori gobi in India and was incredibly healthy all the time. This means something.

Ground meat or Sheekh kebabs, packed around metal skewers and cooked in a tandoor oven, are extremely common and always delicious. They are usually made out of lamb or mutton, mixed with aromatic spices and served with the usual pickled onion and lemon. Some varieties are made of ground, tender chicken - I tried one tasty variety (the name of which escapes me) comprised of spicy chicken rolled around tomato. The picture above shows a special and expensive variety of sheekh kebab made of mutton wrapped around chicken and everyone knows two tasty animals are better then one.

Tandoori lamb chops combine fatty and gamy lamb meat and rich Indian spices, coupled with a skilled and delicate char: it is hard to imagine them not being delicious. They generally only are found on the menu of rather upscale places but are absolutely worth the expense. I advise doing like most Indians do in the presence of really fine meat projects and eschewing your knife and fork, since everything really does taste better on the bone.

One of the world's minor miracles is that these delicious lamb chops can be replicated at home: Food and Wine's Tandoori lamb chop recipe is one of my go-to's and has provoked intensely positive reactions from everyone I've fed them to. Make them as soon as humanly possible.

Pomfret is a small and curiously flat fish that is very popular in India and basically unknown in the USA. I developed a taste for it extremely quickly: the flat little suckers have sweet and delicately flaky fish, which is served extremely well by the tandoor oven treatment. Whole fish are usually scored, rubbed with spices, and cooked head-and-all - the delicate, nearly translucent little spines can easily be lifted out. As I have mentioned in the past, I derive a curious and perverse sort of pleasure from eating an entire animal and thus enjoy these very much. Be vigilant and careful to ensure you are getting a decently sized pomfret for your supper: I have occasionally been served two bite fish and been hungry for the rest of the evening.

Those are some of the more commonly encountered taste-treats: I'll post more as I dig up photos. You should probably try them all as a scientific endeavor.

1 comment:

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