Indian cuisine relies on an assortment of zealously guarded culinary skills descended from generations across a host of regions. The cooking techniques imbue dishes with distinctive regional flavors that can be difficult to recreate in the Indian diaspora.
One such distinct flavor comes from the spectacular tandoori delicacies of North India. The use of a tandoor or clay oven is very important in traditional North Indian cooking. Many breads and dishes were designed especially for these clay ovens, including Punjabi and North Indian breads such as naan and tandoori roti, and meats and fish such as tandoori lamb chops, chicken tikka, tandoori chicken, tandoori pomfret fish, tandoori shrimp and reshmi kebab, among others.
Tandoori food has a distinctive rustic flavor produced by the clay oven's design. Heat in a tandoor is generated from lighted coals at the base of the oven. As the food inside cooks, juices drop onto these hot coals, producing deliciously flavored smoke that is the signature of the tandoor. Meat is placed on oversized metal skewers and placed through the top of the tandoor, with the tip of the skewer touching the bottom, where the charcoal is smoldering hot. The heat inside the tandoor sears the surface of the meat, and the metal skewers conduct the heat through the inside of the food, cooking the meat simultaneously on both the inside and the outside.
Here in the United States it is difficult to find an equivalent of a tandoor, but we have a few options. Barbecues or conventional ovens can be pretty good, especially where cooking can be done over a grill that lets juices run onto the burners or coals. The effect isn't quite that of the clay oven, but the flavors are a fair substitution.
Although a conventional oven is similar to a tandoor in that they both have an enclosed space where heat is trapped, the oven does not produce the trademark smoky flavoring of real tandoori food. A grill can be used when cooking food like lamb chops or chicken tikka, even though the concept of grill cooking is really the reverse of tandoori cooking. A grill does not have an enclosed space, and food is heated by elements from above. The grill is good for quick and simple cooking.
Overall, if you wish to do some North Indian-style cooking, the most suitable alternative to a tandoor is a coal-fueled barbecue. It may well be worth making the investment in a tandoor so that you can make delicious grilled food such as chicken tikka and tandoori pomfret.
Gitika Baveja, a high-tech worker and fan of Indian cooking, recently published her first cookbook, "Indian Flavors to Savor." For tandoori recipes, see Baveja's cookbook at www.flavorstosavor.com. For more information, e-mail [email protected]