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Tandoori delights

Have you seen a tandoor? It is a clay oven that is used to cook and bake food by generating fire within it. The food cooks in its own fat and juices as it is exposed to high temperatures inside the tandoor.

This method of cooking, called the tandoori method, is often associated with Mughlai food or the food from the Mughal era. This also refers to dry foods especially meats cooked in a clay oven over a high heat. The chicken tikka, mutton tikka, kebab, tandoori murg, paneer tikka are some of the grilled delights that come out of a tandoor.

The earliest tandoors were discovered alongside the remains of the Indus Valley civilisation. It is now a strongly held belief that the tandoor travelled with the migrating Aryan race.

The Aryans, who originally belonged to India, would travel often in search of grazing lands. Some of their travels took them to the Caucasus Mountains and also brought them back after a couple of centuries and so the tandoor travelled from India around Asia and back again.

If you were to look at the origin of the term tandoor, history would take you to the time of the Mesopotamians. Some also believe that the term had its origin in Pashto where tata means hot and andar means inside.

The evidence of the use of clay ovens set in earth have been found in Ladakh in the uppermost reaches of India as well as in Egypt when they were mummifying bodies and building pyramids. History tells us that in Afghanistan, tandoor was used as a community oven and people could bring their dough and get it baked for a fee.

Amongst our medical treatises written as early as in the Vedic Era, the food cooked on an open charcoal fire has been lauded by the father of surgery, Sushrut. Charvak, another renowned physician, also praised this method of cooking which aided the digestion of marinated meats.

Imperial poet Amir Khusro in some of his works noted that flatbread cooked in a tandoor, popularly called naan, was relished by the royals.

Some varieties of the tandoori naan were enriched with the addition of the choicest nuts for the esteemed consumer.

In Punjab and Rajasthan, the tandoor is also called bhatti. Bhatti is derived from the name of a tribe of the Thar desert. These people developed a variation of the tandoor in the deserts to optimise the heat trapped in the sand to cook their food. Smart, wouldn’t you say?

During the rule of Jehangir, tandoori food gained prominence. He took his love of the tandoor to the places he conquered and introduced it there. This led to the invention of portable tandoors. Some food historians do believe that tandoori chicken originated during these times. It was popularised by Kundan Lal Gujral and his partner Kundan Lal Jaggi who settled in the Daryaganj area in Delhi after Partition and opened a restaurant called Moti Mahal specialising in tandoori delights. The rest as they say is history and today tandoori is a favoured choice of millions around the world.

(This post first appeared as a column in The New Indian Express on September 21, 2012. Here is the link to it:


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