Indian food is as English as bangers and mash, probably the best vestige of the British Raj. There’s nothing quite like the scent of basmati rice spiked with cloves and silky threads of saffron perfuming the air. But, much to Mum’s chagrin, sometimes I deviate from pukkah curry and sample other exotic Indian dishes. And sometimes I even prepare them.
After tasting tandoori chicken for the first time, I was shown a tandoori oven, a large clay contraption that is shaped like a medieval oubliette and fired up to a heat that far exceeds conventional ovens. Marinated chickens are skewered onto large iron spears and quickly thrust in. Then the chef jumps back! The heat is so intense, the birds are cooked in just eight to ten minutes. Quite amazing. Not possessing a tandoor, for years I only ever had this exquisite dish in restaurants—until I came to America and discovered the grill. You can of course try setting your oven to the highest possible temperature, but it’s so delicious this way! And in the height of summer who wants to heat up the kitchen heating? So the grill it is—perfect for the Fourth of July!
First a word of caution: The chicken must marinate in lovely spices and juices for at least 24 hours. So definitely do ahead food—but worth it!
Let us begin. Hack up a chicken into eight pieces, thighs, drumsticks, wings, and breasts. You may cut the breasts in half if they are particularly fulsome. Now skin the chicken. You see, healthy already! Then, psycho-style, slash deep gashes into the meat with a sharp knife. Place pieces in a glass dish, top with squeezed lemon juice and sprinkle with garlic powder. Most recipes call for salt but for health concerns I use garlic instead and no one knows ever notices. Now put the dish in the fridge and let the chicken grow acquainted with the lemon and garlic while you make the spice mix.
You can buy a prepared tandoori spice mix, such as Sharwoods, but if you have access to an enlightened supermarket or an Asian market you can easily make your own. With the leftover spices you’ll have new and exotic flavors and aromas ready for future feasts! You’ll need
2 teaspoons each of: Garam Marsala, cumin, garlic powder, ginger powder, onion powder, and paprika. If you like a bit of heat, add hot chili powder, but I never do. You can also exchange fresh ginger and garlic for the powdered stuff but I never bother. Mix spices together. Add 3 tablespoons of yogurt (I use non-fat) and 3 tablespoons of malt vinegar. This is called fish’n chip vinegar over here. And yes, I enjoy spraying my fries with the stuff, if only to see my family run off in horror and disgust. But I digress. If you cannot locate said condiment, use cider or apple vinegar. Most recipes also call for 3-4 tablespoons of oil in the mix. I’ve tried it with and without and found no noticeable difference, so I don’t use the oil and feel quite virtuous about it. Also add 3 tablespoons of lemon juice. Now mix a bit of red and yellow food coloring and tip it into the mixture. This gives the dish its traditional reddish orangey color, not essential but quite festive.
Retrieve chickkie from fridge and coat every bit of meat with the spice mix. Make sure you get some into the various slits and exposed pieces of bone. Cover with plastic wrap and pop back in the fridge overnight. I made this once and forgot about it for 48 hours–tasted even better, but it’s not necessary. But leaving it overnight is important.
And the next day… fire up your grill
If, like me, you have a Weber-type grill, bank up the coals on one side. When the embers are good and hot, place your chicken pieces on the grill, directly over the coals. Do not cover. Sear the chicken for a few minutes on each side, turning, turning. Watch the meat like a hawk. You want tiny black flecks on the flesh but that’s all. After a few minutes, put the chicken as far away from the coals as possible and cover the grill. Let the chicken cook another 10 minutes for the breast and 15 for the legs and thighs.
Place the finished product on a bed of lettuce and fresh cilantro/coriander, squeeze some lemon juice onto the chicken—this is quite important—decorate with lemon wedges, and you're done. Serve with a mint raita, a yoghurt-cucumber mixture.
As you see in the piccy, this dish looks spectacular. It also tastes wonderful, smells exotic, and it’s quite healthy! So head East, young blogger, go feast and feel good about it! Definitely the pukkah way to eat fowl––even the memsahib likes it!