Indian Style Grilling: The Mysteries of Tandoori Chicken

What exactly is "Indian style grilling"? Is there any fundamental difference between the ways Indians and Americans grill their meat?

To find the answer to these questions, one will have to travel across the globe to India itself. If you were to land in New Delhi tomorrow and take a walk through its crowded streets, one common sight that will greet you is a string of chicken pieces strung outside street-side restaurants in a fiery red marinate. A man, usually not particularly concerned about hygiene, in a dirty undershirt, stoops over a burning hot clay oven. The chicken pieces, skewered and brushed with butter or ghee (clarified butter), disappear inside this oven for a few minutes. They are taken out, turned, brushed with some more butter, and again they disappear into the oven. Five more minutes later, the cook in the dirty undershirt takes out the chicken pieces, plops them on to a plate, sprinkles some spice mixture on them, squeezes some lemon juice on top and presents it to you, steaming hot and terribly delicious.

The clay oven in question is called a 'tandoor'. The chicken dish is called 'tandoori chicken'. The spice mixture is called 'masala'. This dish - 'tandoori chicken' - is often called the national dish of India. It is ubiquitous throughout the northern parts of this country. Hundreds of restaurants in every city serve out thousands of plates of this spicy grilled chicken dish. The same chicken is used in another national favorite - 'Butter Chicken', a dish of grilled chicken pieces in a flavorful sauce of tomatoes and cream.

The 'tandoor' is very different from grills used in the Western world. For one, the food is not kept out in the open. Rather, this clay oven is at least 3-4 feet high. The coal is burnt at the bottom. The food is placed skewered, then placed deep inside the oven. It is periodically turned to evenly distribute the heat. The end result is meat that is thoroughly cooked but doesn't quite come off the bone. The cooking time is hardly more than fifteen minutes.

The marinate mixture used for the most popular dish - tandoori chicken - is made primarily of yogurt. Yogurt (or curd as it is called in India) is a common base in most chicken dishes. It is spiced with red chili powder, dry 'garam masala' (a mixture of large cardamoms, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, etc.), dry coriander powder, a hint of turmeric powder, and ginger-garlic paste. The chicken is placed in this marinate for a few hours, and then roasted inside the clay oven.

Unlike America, where grilling is a national pastime, almost nobody even owns a 'tandoor' in India. Yet, 'tandoori chicken' is a staple food item. This has made 'non-veg restaurants' (the label has to be clearly specified, seeing how India is a largely vegetarian country) mushroom throughout the country, dotting virtually every road corner. In my travels through India, I hardly came across a city or town that did not have a few dozen such restaurants, alluring locals and weary travelers alike with the aroma of perfectly roasted chicken wafting around everywhere.

'Tandoori chicken', or its various derivative dishes such as 'Afghani chicken', 'Haryali chicken', or 'chicken tikka' are best enjoyed with a very light, very thin flatbread called 'romali roti'. The chicken is typically served with a salad of onions and a spicy green chili, mint and yogurt chutney. All in all, a heaven for the palate and something every grilling enthusiast has to try at least once. Indian restaurants in the US serve this chicken too, but I'm yet to come across any single restaurant that can match the authentic experience.

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