Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Time to respect the tandoor
No, it’s not just an oven for flabby broiler chicken tikka. It is India’s contribution to the global barbecue tradition.
The great Spanish chef Dani Garcia was in India a couple of weeks ago to cook at a pop-up. He ate his way around Delhi and Agra but the highlight of his stay may have been dinner at Bukhara.
Other Western chefs have ignored the tandoor till recently. Manish Mehrotra, India’s greatest chef, has become a crusader for our styles of cooking as his global fame has spread. And Manish now has a collection of photos of big-name global chefs (in the Heston Blumenthal, Daniel Humm league) who have visited the Indian Accent kitchens and made naans in the tandoor with their own hands.
And I always believe that the description of a tandoor as a mere oven kind of misses the point. Garcia, who has a global empire of restaurants and understands many international cuisines, got it immediately. He noticed that the Bukhara tandoor used charcoal (from wood) and recognised that the flavours it imparted to the food were significantly more delicious than the tandoori food he had eaten at other places.
In fact, most Indians also miss the importance of charcoal in adding flavour to tandoori food which is why many tandoori kebabs in India and especially, abroad, are so mediocre.
They usually love the food but only the best chefs recognise what it is that makes tandoori cooking so special. (Garcia has three Michelin stars so obviously he knows his stuff.)
In the public mind, Spanish food is still thought of in terms of El Bulli. So we always expect Spanish chefs to use molecular techniques. But there is a conscious move in Spain now to go back to the basics and to simpler techniques.
A meal at Bukhara is about the flavours of the ingredients and the way in which tandoori cooking enhances them. Great chefs realise this instantly whenever they visit the restaurant.
It was in the Indian subcontinent that the tandoor was first used for cooking meat and chicken – possibly in Peshawar in the 1930s and more famously in Delhi in the 1950s. It was a Punjabi Hindu innovation that spread all over the subcontinent in the second half of the 20th century. Once tandoori chicken had been invented, all the other variations (Butter Chicken in Delhi; Chicken Tikka Masala in some Bangladeshi-owned restaurant in England, etc.) came about.
The second way of looking at a tandoor is not as a mere oven but as a way of creating Indian barbecue dishes. I asked Rajdeep Kapoor, the Maurya’s executive chef, about the Indian barbecue tradition and he said that he could think of two ancient styles. One was cooking meat over an open fire – how they make a kakori, how they should make a soola and how traditional cooks in the Jama Masjid area (and other places) still make their kebabs. The second is burying the meat underground and covering it with hot coals.