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Home / Brunch / Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Time to respect the tandoor

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.

brunch Updated: Feb 09, 2020 00:00 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
The earliest versions of the tandoor appear to have been found during excavations of Indus Valley civilisation sites
The earliest versions of the tandoor appear to have been found during excavations of Indus Valley civilisation sites(Shutterstock)

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.

Most chefs and foodies, all over the world, have heard of tandoori chicken (or, if they are Brits, of Chicken Tikka Masala) but I don’t know how many of them fully understand the concept of tandoori cooking.

In 1985, Jean André Charial (who then had three Michelin stars at Baumaniere in the South of France) visited India as part of a group of 20 French chefs. While most of the chefs had no clue what they were eating during the trip (“eet all looks ze same”) and left without understanding Indian food (“is too hot!”), Charial was fascinated by tandoori cooking, ordered a tandoor and took it back to France.

Global chefs like Daniel Humm have visited Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent kitchens and made naans in the tandoor
Global chefs like Daniel Humm have visited Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent kitchens and made naans in the tandoor

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.

But the average non-Indian chef has no idea of the magic of tandoori cooking. Most think of the tandoor as an oven, and not much more. Food textbooks usually describe it as a clay oven but the tandoors at many Indian restaurants abroad are not made of clay so this further confuses Westerners.

Spanish chef Dani Garcia was fascinated by the tandoori cooking at Bukhara
Spanish chef Dani Garcia was fascinated by the tandoori cooking at Bukhara

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.

Because chefs find tandoors easy to use, all kinds of dishes end up being made in gas-fired tandoors

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.

Garcia and his team of chefs got the point. They were so fascinated with the Bukhara food that they spent 20 minutes in the kitchen, interrupting their dinner to try to understand the cooking process.

Bukhara is now a regular stop on the itinerary of every visiting celebrity. Every US President who comes to India visits Bukhara. Bill Clinton ate half the menu every time he came in his pre-vegan days. Way back in the 1980s, Sting and Bruce Springsteen ate there and since then, rock stars and movie stars treat it as an imperative to grab one of its roughly hewn wooden stools. Great chefs always check it out – it was Heston Blumenthal’s first meal on his last visit to India.

Heston Blumenthal showcases the naan made by him in the tandoor at Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent
Heston Blumenthal showcases the naan made by him in the tandoor at Manish Mehrotra’s Indian Accent

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.)

The most trendy foodie restaurant in the world at present is Extebarri (don’t ask me how it is pronounced; I don’t know either) in Bizkaia in Spain (it is in that Bilbao-San Sebastian belt where so many of Spain’s great restaurants are located). Its principal claim to fame is that the chef Victor Arguinozoniz (no, I don’t know how to pronounce that either) grills everything over an open hearth. The point of his food is that every single dish from the prawns to the steak tastes of fire and smoke.

Extebarri in Bizkaia, Spain, is the most trendy foodie restaurant where every dish from the (inset) prawns to the steak tastes of fire and smoke
Extebarri in Bizkaia, Spain, is the most trendy foodie restaurant where every dish from the (inset) prawns to the steak tastes of fire and smoke

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.

And most of the world is following suit. Simple is back in fashion. Barbecue is big.

So the time is right for our tandoori cooking to make an international splash. In any just world, Bukhara would be rated among the world’s – or at least, Asia’s – top restaurants and perhaps it will be now, given the change in public tastes.

Bukhara is now a regular stop on the itinerary of every visiting celebrity like tennis ace Roger Federer
Bukhara is now a regular stop on the itinerary of every visiting celebrity like tennis ace Roger Federer

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.

Unfortunately, tandoori cooking has been done a huge disservice in India by talentless cooks and cost-cutting entrepreneurs. As many of you may know, the tandoor is part of our ancient tradition but tandoori chicken is not.

The earliest versions of the tandoor appear to have been found during excavations of Indus Valley civilisation sites. But versions of the tandoor also turn up all over central Asia. I don’t want to get into a tedious argument about whether the tandoor travelled out of the Indus Valley Civilisation to the middle east and central Asia (there were trade connections, even in those days) or whether it was forgotten here and came back to India in the medieval period.

But what is clear is this: it started out as an oven for making breads. And that is still the primary use it is put to all over Central Asia.

Chef Jean André Charial took a tandoor back to France from India 
Chef Jean André Charial took a tandoor back to France from India 

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.

Everyone accepts that the rise of tandoori meats was the single greatest achievement of Indian cuisine in the 20th Century. But I think we now also have to accept that in the 21st Century, it has become a technique that is in danger of falling into disrepute.

Virtually every Indian restaurant in the world now has a tandoor. It is as ubiquitous as the pressure cooker. But fewer and fewer chefs know how to make proper use of it. The essential difference, I always think, is one of philosophy. You can see the tandoor as an oven. It can be gas-fired and you can put whatever meat you like into it.

If you have eaten chicken tikka at most restaurants, you will know how sharp the decline in tandoori cooking has been. The chicken will almost always be industrial, a tasteless broiler bird with all the flavour of a bath sponge. The spicing/marinade will be basic and the final dish could well be banned on environmental grounds alone because it tastes like plastic. It is the kind of flabby chicken that goes into butter chicken, which is now the most abused and violated dish at most Indian restaurants.

Because chefs find tandoors easy to use, all kinds of dishes that were never meant for tandoori-cooking end up being made in gas-fired tandoors. Take, for instance, the Rajput soola, a wonderful meat dish cooked on an open fire. It is now what chefs call ‘tandoori item’, is even made from chicken and the tandoori version always makes me want to throw up.

Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger made sure to eat at Bukhara during his India visit
Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger made sure to eat at Bukhara during his India visit

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.

At Bukhara, they regard tandoor cooking as a third form of Indian barbecue. That’s why they use charcoal, pay so much attention to the temperature, watch the meat closely and throw away any kebabs that do not taste of fire. (It helps also that they don’t use broiler chicken, food colour etc.)

I am guessing that all the great visiting chefs who are fascinated by the Bukhara style of tandoori cooking recognise that it is our answer to Etxebarri. They recognise the importance of the technique and realise that the tandoori stuff they are fobbed off with elsewhere bears only a passing resemblance to the real thing.

At some level, we recognise it too. That’s why Bukhara is so full every night. (And that’s why they can get away with charging those prices.)

Now all we need is for more Indian chefs to give tandoori cooking the respect it deserves. A tandoor is not an oven, guys, it is India’s contribution to the global barbecue tradition. Learn to use it properly!

From HT Brunch, February 9, 2020

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