May It Please the Palate: Tandoori Chicken

By Nick Roumel

Like many an ethnic dish, what was once rare and exotic has become ubiquitous and unremarkable. One might say the same about tandoori chicken, whether served by an Indian street vendor or an American Indian restaurant.

This is a dish that traces its origins to the 12th century and the beginning of Mughalai cuisine, fusing Persian and Indian cooking. The “tandoor,” an outdoor, underground clay oven, was originally used for baked breads such as the familiar “naan.” Versions of this thick bread were served at the Imperial Court in Delhi, and it became a staple in Punjab in northern India.

Mughal who ruled India were Muslim and did not eat pork; Hindus did not eat beef. Thus much of what we know as Indian cuisine avoids both, favoring meats such as chicken, lamb and goat. When such meat was wrapped around iron rods called “Seekhs” and cooked over open flames, it evolved into “shish-kebab.” Marinated and baked in the clay ovens, it gave birth to tandoori chicken. This happened in the 1600’s.

After Indian independence in 1947, there was a culinary revolution. Tandoori chicken was popularized at restaurants in Old Delhi, where was served to the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. It so impressed him that he made it a regular at official banquets and served it to visiting dignitaries.

Soon after, tandoori chicken was sold by every restaurant and roadside stall (“dhaba”) in India. As reported in a 2008 article in The Hindu: “Anybody with some enterprise and a tandoor could open up a little counter where they had these hapless chickens strung upside down to entice customers. But while you’ll hit a tandooriwallah [tandoori chef] if you throw a stone, you still cannot find a well roasted tandoori chicken very easily.”

But you can make a good version of tandoori chicken in your own kitchen, even without a tandoor. I once made several pounds for a house party when I was still in law school. While well-roasted, but I made it too hot for the common palate. My then-housemate still remembers this event, and wrongly assumes that tandoori chicken is supposed to be spicy hot. It isn’t.

In restaurants, tandoori chicken is often served bone-in, on a sizzling hot cast iron skillet, boasting its trademark ruby red color and served with grilled onions and peppers. (Chicken tikka masala, by contrast, is similar but served in boneless chunks.) This version from Mark Bittman, food journalist and New York Times columnist, is made with whole boneless chicken breast. He calls it “fast” and “dead simple.”

Fast Tandoori Chicken
2 cups yogurt
2 teaspoons minced ginger
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons ground coriander
 Juice of a lime
 Salt and fresh black pepper
1-1/2 pounds chicken breasts
 Minced cilantro for garnish

1. Preheat broiler or grill. Combine yogurt, ginger, garlic, paprika, coriander, half the lime juice and salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl. If chicken breasts are whole, cut them in half. Dredge chicken in yogurt mixture and marinate 5 to 60 minutes, as time allows.

2. If you're broiling, line a baking sheet with aluminum foil for easier cleanup. Put chicken breasts on pan, underside facing up; reserve marinade that does not cling to breasts. Broil 3 to 4 minutes, or until lightly browned. Turn chicken, and spoon remaining marinade over. Broil on smooth side another 3 to 4 minutes, or until lightly browned. Garnish, add remaining lime juice over chicken and serve, spooning the cooked marinade over the meat and, if you're serving it, over rice.

3. If grilling, cut marinade by half. Cook 3 to 4 minutes a side, until chicken browns and is cooked through, at times brushing with marinade. Garnish, add lime, serve.

Notice Bittman doesn’t have any hot pepper in his marinade. It’s a lesson I’ve learned too late, but his version will help you convince your friends that Indian cuisine is not always spicy hot.

While tandoori chicken is now usually cooked in a gas or electric oven rather than a communal tandoor, that doesn’t make it any less authentic. Like anything else you’ll find in restaurants, it traces its roots to ancient cooking, and is often shaped by religious and political influences far beyond the fire.