The Unlikely History of Tandoori Chicken (and a Recipe)

February 25, 2016

Tandoori chicken has become an incredibly popular, ubiquitous item on the menus of Indian restaurants, and it's easy to understand why: The bright orange glow from the turmeric, the cardamom, cumin, and cloves that coat the chicken and fall into a sauce sopped up with basmati rice and naan are very easy to love.

But tandoori chicken almost didn't exist at all.

Nearly 100 years ago, a man named Mokha Singh Lamba started a small restaurant in Peshawar, Pakistan. In the center of the restaurant was a tandoor, a cylindrical clay oven, placed there by a man who worked at the restaurant, Kundan Lal Gujral. While bread has been baked in tandoor ovens for hundreds of years and there are several reports of chicken being baked in tandoors since the 16th century, the version Gujral made—with crispy skin and a recognizably bright red exterior—became an enormous success until he was forced to flee Pakistan during the 1947 Partition of India.

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In his new home in Delhi, Gujral founded a new restaurant, Moti Mahal, which went on to popularize butter chicken and dal makhani. In its 1950s heyday, it was popular with celebrities and world leaders. Many—including Nixon, John F. Kennedy, and Gandhi—visited it, which may be in part why Gujral's restaurant is credited with launching Indian cuisine—and tandoori chicken—into the international food scene.

In this version, by The Weiser Kitchen, the beauty—and flavor—of the chicken is in the details. While the chicken isn't cooked in a tandoor, it's baked on a preheated broiling pan after being marinated overnight in vinegar, coconut milk (instead of yogurt), ginger, and garlic. The paste, made from freshly toasted and ground cumin, cardamom, cloves, and coriander blankets the incredibly tender chicken in a sauce that we can only imagine must rival the original.

What is your favorite recipe for tandoori chicken? Are you surprised by its origins? Tell us in the comments below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Annada Rathi
    Annada Rathi
  • Panfusine
I eat everything.


Annada R. February 26, 2016
That is so true, Panfusine. Regional diversity in food is the hallmark of Indian cuisine, a very broad, umbrella term. That has been lost which severely limits awareness about Indian food in all its variety and glory.
Panfusine February 25, 2016
Yep, Ironically, most of whatever the western world knows as 'Indian food' is originally from the Punjab region of Pakista and opening restaurants was a means of livelihood for many of the refugees that poured into Delhi in 1947 The unfortunate flip side is that almost all other cuisines from the rest of the country ended up getting smothered when this restaurant food started getting marketed world wide as Indian Food.
Annada R. February 25, 2016
I'm super surprised by the story of tandorri chicken's origin. Thank you, Leslie. Will try to read the book soon. Love stories that sit at the intersection of food trends and history.