Ironically, one of the most common forms of Indian barbecue – tandoori chicken – isn’t inherently Indian after all. The dish came with Pakistani immigrant Kundan Lal Gujral, who found himself in India after the 1947 partition and opened a restaurant in Delhi.
The masala-coated red chicken pieces that are charred over coals are the predecessor of the even more famous butter chicken and continue to be one of the most popular versions of barbecue food in India. But the art of Indian barbecue is multi-faceted and varies enormously by region.
Unlike the American-style barbecue which uses grates to cook the meat, for tandoori cooking the pre-marinated ingredients (mainly chili powder, yogurt and oil) are lined up on a skewer and inserted into a clay oven heated with charcoal. The word “tandoor” is the Turkish pronunciation of the Persian and Arabic word “tannur”, which means a portable oven or oven.
“The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, encouraged the concept of tandoor cooking, which led to its popularity in northern India,” says chef Amninder Sandhu, who founded an open-fire Indian kitchen called Ammu in Mumbai. “He urged people to build a communal oven in the neighborhood to help get rid of caste and encourage them to mingle.” Sandhu traces the origin of this cooking method to the first Indian civilization, in the Harappa Valley, more than 4,000 years ago.
Many barbecue dishes originate from the northern or central states of India, such as Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Ingredients are usually barbecued in a tandoor or sigdi, which is a method similar to African baraai or Brazilian churrasco where the ingredients are cooked on a metal grill.
“We marinate the meat and vegetables in a combination of green and black cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin powder, dried red chilli and coriander seeds. Then cook it on a bed of hot charcoal and gravy,” says James Beard Award-winning chef Chintan Pandya from Dhamaka.
Even further north, in the state of Kashmir, a very different type of barbecue prevails. This method is called seekh, and seekh tujji is a common street food made in this style.
“The technique here is the same as the sigdi style of barbecue where the meat is cooked on a grill,” says Vanika Chaudhary, chef and founder of Mumbai-based restaurant Noon. A Kashmiri herself, Chaudhary works with indigenous ingredients and techniques in her restaurant. “The marinade authentically uses spices such as turmeric, ginger powder and fennel.”
But what sets it apart from other Indian barbecues is the use of local Kashmiri chili peppers, which are pounded into the base. “Growing up, I watched my mom do that,” Chaudhary recalled. “She marinated the meat overnight in these spices and cooked it the next day. I saw her massaging the sheep for a long time. She always added cow dung and twigs from our garden to set the bottom of the sigdi on fire with the charcoal.
These additions give seekh cashmeri a traditional touch. While other forms of Indian barbecue are often served with condiments such as chili, mint, and coriander chutney, Kashmiri barbecue is served with doon chetin, a nut and yoghurt chutney.
In western India, Rajasthan, another style of barbecue called “soole” is common and has its roots in Europe. “The origin of sword cooking may have started with the Greek warriors and that’s how shish kebab came to be – with a major Turkish influence,” says TV chef Ranveer Brar. “In India, he is known as soole, and is believed to have originated from the Indian Rajput clan, a warrior community.”
Warriors hunted meat, skewered it on their swords and cooked it over high heat, along with pickles they brought home. Today, this war cooking technique is still widespread in this region. While traditionally a simple marinade of chili peppers and pickle oil was used for game meat, today everything from fish to mutton is marinated in complex spices such as coriander powder, cumin powder , dry mango powder and turmeric.
From a rustic cooking method for early Indians to a nuanced method of cooking ingredients like tempeh, shiitake mushrooms, broccoli, and even cottage cheese using Indian spices and oils, barbecue evolved over the years in India. But what has remained intact are the basic flavor notes and cooking techniques, which you can try out at home.
Seekh Kebab Recipe by Chintan Pandya
• 5 pounds boneless lamb chunks
• 1 teaspoon of salt
• 1½ tablespoons chilli powder
• ¼ teaspoon of shahi jeera (royal cumin)
• ½ teaspoon green cardamom powder
• ¼ teaspoon mace powder
• 1½ tablespoons ginger paste
• 1½ tablespoons of garlic paste
• 2 teaspoons of green chili paste
• 4 teaspoons of garam masala
• 3½ ounces of melted cheese
• 8 tablespoons green coriander leaves (finely chopped)
• 1 cup lamb fat
1. In a bowl, marinate the lamb with all the ingredients except the cilantro, overnight.
2. Finely chop this mixture and add the herb. Season and set aside.
3. Now take a handful of this mince and shape it into elongated skewers and skewer them on grilling rods.
4. The mince will be sticky enough to spread well on the skewer. You can slightly wet your palms to facilitate this process. Spread each kebab around three inches or less.
5. Roast these stalks for 20-25 minutes on a grill, high heat or tandoor until cooked through.
6. Take it off the skewer and serve hot with the mint-coriander chutney.
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