Tandoori cooking takes its name from the tandoor, a centuries-old unfired clay oven common to the Indus Valley, one of the earliest sites of human civilization. These wood- or charcoal-fired vessels might be considered “primitive” but are also the basis for some very cultivated cooking.
The fire contained within its walls —which heated and evenly radiated and reflected the heat — combined roasting, grilling, smoking and convection-cooking in one reasonably compact unit. It was the earliest transitional development between earth and brick ovens, a design process that led to that metal-clad gas or electric thing in your kitchen.
Tandoori cooking — particularly Indian-inflected meat dishes such as tandoori chicken — also describes a specific preparation: a yogurt-based marinade, heavily seasoned with cayenne, citrus, chilies, cumin, honey, garlic and ginger plus traditional spice blends (most commonly garam, tikka or tandoori masala). Their prevalent distinctive red-orange color comes from generous use of ground red pepper and turmeric among other spices. (A shopping note: Saraswati on Route 9 in Wappingers Falls is a great source for Indian spices.)
The use of yogurt as the base for a marinade is a sophisticated technique, particularly for meats. Unlike aggressively assertive acidic citrus- or vinegar-based marinades, yogurt-based tandoori preparations slowly and gently tenderize the proteins in meat. And because tandoori chicken traditionally uses skinless chicken, as the milk proteins and sugars in the marinade roast they create a creamy, caramelized crust over tender, exceptionally juicy meat.
Small, bone-in pieces of tandoori chicken can be served as an appetizer or a main course, along with traditional flatbreads (also tandoor cooked) and chutneys. But the more refined preparation, chicken tikka, is prepared with boneless meat and is the basis for even more sophisticated preparations such as butter chicken (tikka in a cream-based curry), chicken tikka biryani (a fragrant rice dish) or chicken tikka masala (in a tomato and pureed nut-based sauce).
Granted, this Hudson Valley kitchen version of tandoori lacks the high heat — sometimes upward of 900 degrees in a traditional tandoor — or the direct exposure to fire or charcoal and smokiness. This marinade is great on the grill, but for this home-oven version, a final blast under the broiler will provide a bit of the char that is a feature of “real” tandoori.
The only other non-traditional modification I’ve made to the marinade is the addition of a bit of cornstarch to replicate a crunchy crust, an effect that may be more necessary or obvious on vegetables. Although chicken is traditional in this dish, the cauliflower can stand on its own if you prefer the vegetarian option.
Joe Dizney is a designer, art director and unrepentant sensualist. When the Cold Spring resident is not thinking about food, he is foraging for, cooking or eating it. Email him at [email protected].
Oven-Roasted Tandoori Chicken & Cauliflower
For the marinade:
2- to 3-inch pieces of ginger, peeled and cut into small coins, smashed and roughly chopped
8 to 10 cloves garlic, peeled, smashed and roughly chopped
1½ cups plain Greek whole-milk yogurt (or strained plain whole-milk yogurt)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons garam masala
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon ground white (or black) pepper
1 tablespoon salt
Zest of one lemon
4 boneless chicken pieces (boneless or bone-in, enough for 4 adults) and/or 2 cups cauliflower, cut/broken into large florets
For the raita:
1 cup plain Greek whole milk yogurt
1 small, peeled and seeded cucumber
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced cilantro or mint (plus more leaves for garnish)
Salt and pepper to taste
- Prepare the marinade: In the bowl of a food processor large enough to hold at least 2 cups, pulse ginger and garlic until fine. Add the remainder of the marinade ingredients and pulse until blended.
- Place the chicken and/or cauliflower in a large bowl and cover with the processed marinade, working it in with your fingers, particularly the cauliflower florets. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour (up to 8).
- Prepare the raita: Combine all ingredients in a small bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Preheat oven to 425 degrees; place rack in top third of oven. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper or foil. If using foil, lightly oil or apply a light coating of nonstick spray (spray coconut oil is perfect). If handy, cooking on the sheet pan on lightly greased wire baking racks for circulation will more closely approximate the effect of a tandoori oven.
- Remove chicken and cauliflower from marinade, removing excess marinade. Place pieces on prepared sheet pan or racks in a single layer leaving as much space as possible between pieces. Roast for 20 minutes, then flip pieces and roast for another 20 minutes. At the end of cooking, switch oven to broil and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes to produce a bit of classic tandoori char. Serve topped with dollops of raita and garnished with cilantro leaves.
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