BANGALORE, India — The four tandoors in the Kebabs and Kurries restaurant have been fired for the last three hours to the perfect temperature. Chefs are skewering marinated chicken, lamb, and vegetables as the first diners walk in — a group of women swathed in magenta, peacock blue, and orange saris, with kohl-lined eyes and bangles on their wrists.
A similar scene must have taken place more than 4,000 years ago in the sophisticated urban culture of the Indus Valley Civilization — women with kohl and bangles, tandoors ready to cook meat from farm-reared animals. Of course, if a person from that time came to this restaurant in one of Bangalore's poshest hotels, the ITC Gardenia, everything would look otherworldly and unreal, except for the tandoor.
Indian tandoori cooking is one of the most popular cuisines today — within and outside the country. There aren't many who haven't tried tandoori chicken, roti, or vegetable kebabs.
No one can say for certain when this style of cooking came to India, but tandoors, clay ovens, have been in use for thousands of years. They have been found in archaeological excavations in northeastern Pakistan where the Indus Valley Civilization flourished, about 2,500 BC, and historians believe they existed even before that in Persia (Iran). Or, they appeared in their very first form when hunter-gatherers spit-roasted hunted meat over a stone fire ring.
"Tandoori cooking retains flavors and nutrients," says Yogen Datta, Kebabs and Kurries' executive chef, explaining its worldwide popularity. "It is very healthy."
Only meat was cooked on the first tandoors because fruit and vegetables were eaten raw, but as the sedentary, farming way of life grew, tandoors were used to bake breads, cook vegetables, and grill cheese. Today, tandoor is used synonymously with barbecue, and though the two are similar in that food is grilled, tandoori cuisine is not just a way of cooking but a way of life that existed long before. Indian tandoor snobs are particular about how the meat and vegetables are prepared, marinated, and cooked, and even about who builds their clay oven — they patronize one of a handful of families that have done it for generations.
A tandoor is essentially a clay pitcher sunk in the ground, with a rim-lined opening flush with the ground's surface. A charcoal fire is built inside to bring the air to the desired temperature, 300 degrees Fahrenheit for meat and 250 for vegetables and roti. Datta of Kebabs and Kurries says thermometers are never used in tandoors — you put your hand in, and if it burns it means the food will burn and the temperature is too high.
Once a tandoor is heated to the desired temperature, the fire is allowed to die down and no more fuel is added while the food cooks — if you do, you will get a burned flavor rather than the desired smokiness. Meat and vegetables are cooked on skewers either inserted through the opening or laid across the opening, and roti dough is patted on the inner surface.
"It is a very scientific and efficient method of cooking," says Raaj Singh, executive director of Tandoor, a 35-year-old fine-dining restaurant in Bangalore. "Once heated, the tandoor maintains a constant temperature for several hours."
There are four tandoors at Kebabs and Kurries, each 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep, and like many modern tandoors they are not sunk into the ground. It would be hard to do that, particularly if the restaurant is not on the ground floor. Two of the tandoors are for meat, one is for vegetables, and one for rotis. A vegetarian would balk at the idea of eating food cooked in an oven filled with meat juices and drippings; in keeping with a similar sensibility, tandoori cuisine doesn't include beef out of consideration for the Hindus or pork out of consideration for the Muslims.
Meat is also cut differently, based on what animal it comes from, the part of the animal being used, and the dish it is being prepared for. Chicken is marinated overnight, lamb for a day, vegetables for less than an hour, and paneer (an Indian cheese) for a few hours.
"Every dish has a specific marinade made with different combinations of herbs, garlic, ginger, and at least 14 different spices," says Singh, whose restaurant is famous for its Murg Tikka Lababdar (a chicken dish). Almost every restaurant has its own signature dishes, and the recipes are closely guarded secrets.
Tandoor marinades are acid-based, made with yogurt, lemon, pomegranate, or tamarind. The spicing doesn't overwhelm the flavor of the meat and vegetables and is distinct for each dish — a "lasooni" dish will have more garlic, a "pudina" more mint, and a "methi" more fenugreek.
Once you have everything else right, you can skewer your food and fire your tandoor, but make sure the skewer is the right one. Steel skewers are about 4 feet long and round with a small ring at the bottom so that vegetables and paneer don't slip off. This evening, a chef at Kebabs and Kurries is using shorter, square skewers to cook "kakoris," a highly spiced meat minced to a mousse-like consistency. He squeezes the paste onto the skewer and cooks it on shallow, countertop stoves lined with thermal bricks, a variation on the traditional tandoor.
Another chef is inserting long skewers of vegetables and paneer into a tandoor. It sizzles, and a smoky smell of cumin and red chiles, garlic and ginger wafts through the air, mixing with that of the cooking dough and a myriad other spices hard to identify. The smells all blend together in the kitchen, but when the dishes appear on the table, they are distinct in taste, smell, and appearance.