Indian food writing: the tandoor oven

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Indian chef Zubin D’Souza (theindiaphile’s hugely talented and shamefully under-known food writer) discusses the origins of the traditional Indian oven.

Archaeologists uncovering the ruins of the Mohenjodaro and Harappan civilizations were in for a shock. Here, right in the Indus Valley, lay a farming community that was far more advanced than had previously been thought. In 3000 BC., the Harappans grew cardamom, pepper, turmeric and coriander. They had advanced kitchen implements and knew their spice mixes.

I believe that nothing more surprised the excavating team, than the appearance of a tandoor, or traditional oven. Tandoori style cooking was barely making a foray in the west and was thought of by most people as a rather novel idea. Too bad, the tandoor had been around for more than five thousand years.

The basic construction of a tandoor is rather simple. It is a large bell shaped earthen pot with an opening on the top to allow coal to be tipped in or skewers of food to be cooked and an opening at the side to allow air to pass to fan the flames. Tandoors are then insulated with sand and earth and are encased in tiles or metal.

The ingredients that go into the making of a tandoor are rather complex and they do not merely contain clay. Apart from clay, horsehair, strands of woven coir and sometimes even human hair are added to increase its strength. Once a tandoor has been installed it has to be gradually tempered. At first a small amount of coal is heated at its base. A cooked mixture that comprises of ground spinach, yoghurt, palm sugar and mustard oil is massaged evenly to its insides. Gradually everyday the amount of coal is increased and the layering of the insides with the spinach – palm sugar mixture continues. This process takes about five days to a week. Once the tandoor has been suitably tempered, coal and heat can be increased without fear of it breaking up.

The birth place of the tandoor will always lie in the region comprising North India, parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan and the South-West of China. Apparently the tandoor was supposed to have been brought in by the migrating Aryan tribe. The theory holds that the Aryans were originally from India who travelled in search of grazing lands to the Caucasus mountains and returned back to India after a couple of centuries. It was them who carried the tandoor from India around Asia and back again.

Because the temperatures in a tandoor can be as high as 480oC (900oF), they were rarely kept indoors but out in the open. Since a tandoor required a substantial amount of fuel to keep it hot, they were used mainly in the communal fashion. Entire villages shared a tandoor with the womenfolk gathering around to bake their breads on the hot inner walls whilst exchanging gossip. The tandoor in the village slowly replaced the village square as a place for heralding the king’s proclamations, exchanging views or for festivities.

Now with the onslaught of modernization came a slew of modern substitutions. Gas or electric operated, cement or fibreglass…. the list is endless. To me, no future invention will be able to replace the joy of warming yourself by a traditional tandoor whilst eating hot, smoky bread.

Since many of us would not have access to a tandoor for domestic cooking, there are several ways to replicate the flavours.

When making kebabs, the simplest way would be to smoke the kebab with bits of charcoal or a few shavings of wood. Simply place the kebab in a pot. In a small metal bowl, light the fuel and cover quickly with a lid to trap in the smoke. Seal the openings with aluminium foil. After about twenty minutes, open the lid and bake the kebabs in an oven as per the recipe.

I guess no matter how many times I say it; I may never be able to convey the sheer joy of tandoor-cooked food. It is an experience, best savoured first hand.

Buy Zubin’s All-India Vegetarian Cookbook: A Subzi Sutra Containing the Secrets of India’s Vegetarian Cuisine at Amazon.