How to cook tandoori in a kitchen oven (the secret is smoked butter)

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Whole roasted cauliflower and sticky mango chutney glazed carrots comprise a vegetarian feast using traditional tandoori techniques. Photo by Issy Croker.

Grilling season is upon us, and it's easy to let our cooking drift to the backyard barbecue. But if you’re looking to avoid the heat and mosquitos — or just don’t have a grill — evoking the same flavors can be achieved in the kitchen. Same goes if you’re craving the smokey, crispy taste of a meal fresh from an Indian tandoor. Enter Maunika Gowardhan’s new book, Tandoori Home Cooking: Over 70 Classic Indian Tandoori Recipes to Cook at Home

Gowardhan breaks down how the ancient style of clay pot dishes straight from the oven is not only possible without said clay pot, but easier than you might think. 

The following has been condensed for length and clarity.

KCRW: Tell us about the origins of the tandoor. How far back does clay pot cooking go in India?

Maunika Gowardhan: You hit the nail on the head when you said it's a clay oven, but it's essentially an unfired clay vessel with walls that were traditionally strengthened by straw, dating back to 2600 B.C.E. The first of those were used essentially to make flatbreads, and were part of a lot of cultures, including India, Afghanistan, and even Turkey, for that matter. Discoveries of early tandoors were made in Mohenjo-daro, which is an archaeological site in Pakistan, in the North of India.

It's such an interesting vessel because its length and shape allows one to cook in two ways at the same time essentially, correct?

Yeah. Modern conventional tandoors are kind of an oval shape. They are embedded in most commercial kitchens and restaurants — takeout places. They are made of clay, but the thing that is quite interesting is the metal skewers that a lot of people use across the streets and restaurants in India, and other regions across the world — those skewers go all the way down to the bottom of the tandoor. In essence, what happens is those skewers have meat, vegetables, or paneer across the entire length of that long skewer. So that goes in the center of the tandoor, and the sides of the tandoor is where they have breads. They stick the breads on the side and they cook within seconds. The heat pattern of a tandoor is very, very unique in a way.

In your writing, you talk about how you never really had an oven until you went to the UK. And once you did, you embraced it. You started to play with creating a tandoori-like meal from an oven. Are there a lot of special techniques you have to do, or are you mostly using the broiler?

The endeavor really has been to try and actually replicate the flavors that we can get from a tandoor, and there are some really classic ways of doing it. 

There’s a really nice recipe in Tandoori Home Cooking which has a smoked butter, and the smoked butter is something that keeps for weeks on end in your own refrigerator. [When] you baste any kind of meat or vegetable kabobs with the smoked butter, you get that almost instant, smoky, charred flavor that you’re really yearning and looking for.

I also share a couple of recipes where I use something called the double marinade technique. What this is, essentially, is you making the very same marinade but you're doubling the quantity up. Then you’re halving that amount, marinating your meat in half of it, and then cooking the rest of your marinade over the [gas oven] hob. Once the meat has been cooked, grilled, and skewered, you mix it in with the cooked marinade. So it packs in loads of flavor. 

So yes, you're using a broiler or a grill. But you're also using other options like your traditional oven, a griddle pan, or a frying pan. In some cases —  like there's a really nice recipe for Khamiri roti — essentially what you do is you roll out the bread, but on one side you brush it with some water and you stick that on a really searingly hot frying pan, and then you invert the pan over an open flame. What that does is it gives [the bread] a lovely charred, smoky, gorgeous flavor. Then, once it's cooked, you laden it with some ghee and you're good to go.

More: How long should you marinade? Science has an answer

Talk about this smoked butter technique. What is it called?

It's essentially called a smoked butter. When we normally cook any kind of Tandoori dish, or any kind of dish under a hot grill or in the oven, generally halfway through the cooking process what you are doing is basting the tikka or the kebab with some butter. What you really are looking for is that clay oven cooking, done over hot coals flavor. It’s a charred, lovely, smoky flavor that lingers even when you take the food out. 

There is a really traditional method [of smoking food], which is pretty common in a lot of Indian homes, restaurants, and other outlets called dhungar. It's an age-old technique, and what that does, in essence, is enhances any kind of smokiness into your gravies and curries.

Chef and author Maunika Gowardhan recalls the fond memories of the street stalls and markets during her early days in Delhi. Photo by Issy Croker.

How do you do it?

Say, for instance, you're cooking a curry. You create a little space in the center of the gravy, and then you put a bowl in that space. [Then] you take a small piece of coal — a lot of online stores and even a lot of Asian stores will stock it, just regular coal — and you heat it up to a really high smoking point. You stick that piece of coal in the heat-proof bowl that you have placed in the middle of the gravy — you will see the coal sizzling, it'll be red hot. On top of that, you add a teaspoon of ghee. Once you've added your ghee, the coal will start to smoke. 

At this point, what a lot of places traditionally do is stick a lid on that gravy, and let that smoke infuse in the curry. What that does [is] it just gives the most aromatic, gorgeous, lovely smoky flavor in the gravy. This can be done for anything. This doesn't necessarily have to be done for a cooked dish, it can be done for an uncooked dish as well. So say you’ve marinated some chicken tikkas, and they’re in your bowl. Create a little space in the center, and add your heat-proof bowl. [Then], heat your coal up to a really high heat, stick it in the bowl, put some ghee or butter in that bowl, and then just stick a lid on it and let the smoke seep into the marinade and the chicken pieces.

That's what you do for a dhungar method. But what I did, essentially, is I've reversed it. Basically, I've taken a huge pot of butter and melted it. And then you take a piece of coal, really searingly hot, and you stick it in the melted butter. I'm using a large quantity of butter because I want to make sure I can use it for weeks on end. You stick the coal in the saucepan that has the melted butter and you stick a lid on. Again, you're trying to infuse that charred smoky flavor into the butter itself. Then you strain it through a sieve, and you've got this lovely, gorgeous, smoky flavor. This butter will keep in your refrigerator for weeks. So when you're cooking any kind of tikka, baste it with the smoked butter. That's where the flavor will be more warm, it will be intense, and it will give you the lovely, lovely flavor that you're looking for.

It's such a genius technique. So many of us, when we think about tandoori cooking, think about meat. But you have an extraordinary vegetable chapter. What are some vegetables that we can do?

Writing a book like this was, in essence, a way to introduce and celebrate the wonderful, amazing vegetarian recipes that I ate growing up. One of my favorite things, if you go to this restaurant in Delhi called Bukhara, they do these really lovely tandoori potatoes. I just wanted to replicate that in some way. I've shared a really nice recipe for a tandoori aloo chaat. It's essentially buttermilk potatoes, but you stick them all in one pan along with some buttermilk, just a few spices like cumin, and some green chili. [Then you] roast it in the oven and finish it off with a really nice chaat masala and some fresh mint leaves. 

One of my most fond memories is when I was 15 and 16, I’d go to the street stall and this vendor used to be stood there. He’d heat up corn on the cob over hot coal and I thought it'd be so nice to do something like that. I used to stand there, eating that corn once he'd made it, while watching those coals burn up really, really high. It would be pouring down rain, but the joy of eating that corn and being under that little shack of his where his street cart was just warming my hands across that hot coal… It'll stay with me for a lifetime. So sharing the corn on the cob, I've kind of upped the ante in terms of flavor because I've added a chili and lime butter to it. I feel like there's a lot of nostalgia in the vegetarian chapter. One of my favorite recipes is the green bell peppers stuffed with spicy potatoes and dried mango.

These green peppers stuffed with crushed potatoes flavored with dried mango powder retain their crunch and are a crowd-pleaser. Photo by Issy Croker.

That looks so delicious, I think it’s probably going to be the first thing I make.

Yeah, it’s super, super simple to make, but that's actually something my mother would constantly make at home. Especially when we had friends and family over. Green bell peppers, when they're charred and grilled, are just amazing. They still have a crunch, but they have so much flavor. There are two ways of doing this. The peppers in India were much smaller, so [my mother] would trim the top off the pepper and cook it whole. If you're able to get small peppers, then just trim the tops and you don’t need to halve the peppers like I have [in Tandoori Home Cooking]. So if you have guests who are vegetarian, you can use the spicy potato mix. If you have non-vegetarian guests, you could stuff it with something like the keema, or minced spicy lamb, and then grill it.

Tandoori Home Cooking achieves the ancient style of clay pot cooking for the traditional kitchen oven. Photo by courtesy of Hardie Grant.