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The Unlikely History of Tandoori Chicken (and a Recipe)

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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.

Tandoori Coconut Chicken
Tandoori Coconut Chicken

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.

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.

Tandoori Coconut Chicken

Tandoori Coconut Chicken

The Weiser Kitchen The Weiser Kitchen
Serves 4

For the marinade and chicken:

  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • Two 14-ounce cans unsweetened coconut milk
  • One piece 3-inch by 1-inch fresh ginger, peeled and julienned
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 4 pounds bone-in, skinless chicken thighs

For the spice paste:

  • 2 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds (from about 12 to 15 pods)
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
  • 3 teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 2 teaspoons annatto powder
  • 3 teaspoons ground turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 fresh lemons, zest and juice reserved
  • 1 cup coconut oil, warm and melted
  • 1 red onion, sliced for garnish (optional)
  • 2 lemons, washed and thinly sliced for garnish (optional
Go to Recipe

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

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Chicken, Food History