When my first cookbook, The Indian Slow Cooker, was released in September, 2010, I did what every new author does. I religiously checked Amazon.com every hour on the hour with my breathe held. I was looking for rankings and reviews. As they started to trickle in, most were stellar, five-star ones. But there were some negative ones too.
The first really nasty review came from a ‘man’ in Thailand, saying that he was disgusted that the chicken curry recipe never turned red. And, that it was not up to his expectations of standard Indian food. I wrote back saying that he must have had the dish mistaken with Tandoori Chicken. And, that neither chicken curry nor Tandoori-style chicken technically need be bright red. I continued by writing, “Since when have you seen red chickens running around?”
I have no issues with folks reviewing my books fairly – whether they be positive or negative, but I do have an issue with someone being ignorant of Indian cuisine and then trying to take a stab at being a critic. After I posted my feedback on his feedback, his review magically disappeared.
But, it still begs the question. Do you get Tandoori? Most folks don’t – even if they are Indian. So, let’s clarify what it all means.
Tandoor refers to a clay oven heated to crazily high levels. The ovens are traditionally large and deep and can be as hot as 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Most Indian restaurants have a Tandoor, but if you are in Chicago and really want to see one up close, sign up with a group of friends to take a walking tour with me of little India, or Devon. There’s a European bakery on the strip that makes all of their bread in this kind of oven and will actually let you peer into its deep inferno (for the price of a loaf!).
The deep, clay fiery ovens were always used to make Indian breads like naan, but with the opening of Moti Mahal Restaurant in Delhi, the playing field changed forever. The owner of this now-famous restaurant, Lala Kundan Lal Gujral, actually took marinated chicken for the first time and cooked it to perfection deep in this type of oven. Soon, butter and tandoori chicken was to become famous among the elites in Delhi and all over the world.
The marinade on this chicken also has an interesting history. Though I’m still learning, my basic understanding is that it was originally made with a leaning towards turmeric and paprika (sweet red bell pepper powder), which gave the baked chicken a yellowish-orangey-red coloring rather than the bright red we are accustomed to now. That bright red sadly comes from Food Dyes like Red 40.
Growing up, I never even realized this, but in recent years when I picked up a jar of pre-mixed Tandoori spice blend and read the ingredients – there it was – Red 40 right in the ingredient listing. Even my husband, who is normally a little less ‘health food’ conscious than me ordered me to trash the jar. Knowing all we know now about the negative effects of food dyes on health and children’s behavior – I stay away from them and certainly do not want to feed them to my kids.
When I read Indian cookbooks and see that red food dye is actually in the ingredient listing for Tandoori anything, I’m equally disappointed. You don’t need it to make deliciously tasting Indian chicken, tofu, or whatever.
Instead, use the blend below, which gets it beautiful hue from red chiles, paprika, and turmeric. And always remember, these masalas (spice blends) differ depending on your preferences. This is my own recipe that I’ve developed over time and with trial and error. Change it up as you like!
Makes 1 ½ cups
1 cup whole dried Kashmiri chiles
1/2 cup coriander seeds
1/2 cup cumin seeds
¼ cup black peppercorn
¼ cup whole cloves
2 tablespoons whole green cardamom
2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
3 2 ½-inch cinnamon sticks
1 tablespoon carom seeds (ajwain)
1 heaping tablespoon ginger powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons turmeric powder
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg (optional)
1/2 cup unsmoked paprika
1. In a dry, heavy 4-quart sauté pan, heat the whole spices (chiles, coriander, cumin, peppercorn, cloves, cardamom, fenugreek, cinnamon, and carom) over medium-high heat until they become reddish and fragrant, about 4 – 5 minutes. Mix occasionally so the smaller seeds do not burn.
2. Transfer this mixture to a large tray and cool for at least 15 minutes.
3. Once cooled, transfer to a high-power blender, Vita Mix, or coffee grinder reserved for spices. Take your time and grind down into a fine powder.
4. Put this mixture into a large bowl. Add powdered spices (ginger, garlic, turmeric, nutmeg, and paprika). Mix well. I use a whisk to make sure everything blends.
Store in an airtight jar (preferably glass). This mixture will last you up to 6 months. I use it to make everything from tandoori chicken or tofu to seasoning popcorn.
The recipe for Tandoori Chicken or Tofu will be in my next blog post. The key is to take this blend and mix it with yogurt (use soy or coconut cream if you are Vegan) and marinate your veggies or meat in this blend for a few hours or overnight. Then bake or grill.
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