Taking High-Heat Tandoor Techniques To The Backyard Grill

Jul 1, 2013
Originally published on July 2, 2013 7:24 am

In America, summer grilling generally means heading to the backyard and throwing some hot dogs, burgers and maybe vegetable skewers on the fire. But in India and Pakistan, where summers last for seven months, grilling takes on a whole new level of sophistication.

For starters, forget the gas versus charcoal grill debate. Many cooks in the Indian subcontinent grill using tandoor ovens that they adopted from the Middle East, says chef and writer Madhur Jaffrey, an authority on flavors and techniques from the region.

Originally, all tandoors were clay and kept outdoors. When heated, they can reach 750 to 900 degrees.

"You have to get used to putting your hand in that," Jaffrey tells Robert Siegel on All Things Considered. "It's a whole technique, which ... generations of people, one after the other, learned how to do."

Interestingly, tandoors are relative newcomers to Indian cooking, she says, only entering the mainstream after 1947, when India was partitioned and Pakistan was formed. Hindu refugees who fled from Pakistan brought little tandoors with them.

"Before that, the country of India as a whole had not heard of tandoors," she says. "But now they are everywhere."

Jaffrey says cooking at such a high heat does something magical to food, especially meat like chicken. "The juices are sealed and the spices go right into the chicken, and then it cooks quite fast, and it's very tender," she says.

Unfortunately, it's not that easy to set up a tandoor oven in your own American backyard. Even the cheap ones need regular maintenance, including rubbing on new clay. But you can still adapt the same recipes for gas or charcoal grills.

One of Jaffrey's favorite recipes is a Chappali Kebab. "It's like a hamburger," she says, stuffed with crushed coriander and cumin, tomatoes, green chilies and onions.

"They're absolutely scrumptious and delicious," she says.

And don't forget grilled potatoes on the side. Jaffrey boils a few, before coating them in a mixture of ground coriander, chili powder, turmeric and cumin.

"They brown on the grill with all these spices around them. But they're already boiled, so the spices don't burn," she says. "It's just gorgeous."

This post is part of Global Grill, a summer series from All Things Considered that pulls apart the smoky flavors of grilled foods from around the world.

Jaffrey's Recipe: Turkey Chappali Kebabs

Editor's Note: Jaffrey shared this recipe, adapted for use without a tandoor oven.

Chappali kebabs, popular throughout much of Pakistan but originating near its borders with Afghanistan, are beef patties shallow-fried in the fat rendered from the tail of a sheep. If you can imagine a juicy, spicy hamburger cooked in roast beef drippings, you get a general idea: delicious but iffy on the health front. So over the years, I have come up with my own version, a turkey kebab. You can fry them in a pan with oil or cook on the grill like you would with hamburgers.

Makes 6 patties

2 tablespoons plain yogurt

1 pound ground turkey (preferably a mixture of light and dark meat)

3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds and 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds, crushed lightly in a mortar or put between sheets of foil and crushed with a rolling pin

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon finely grated peeled fresh ginger

5 tablespoons olive or canola oil

Spoon the yogurt into a small sieve and set it over a cup to drain. Ten minutes will do it, but longer will not hurt.

Put the drained yogurt and all the ingredients except the oil in a bowl and mix well. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour or as long as 24 hours so flavors meld.

Divide the meat into six portions and form balls. Flatten the balls to make 3 1/2-inch clean-edged patties.

Pour the oil into a large frying pan and set over medium-high heat. When hot, put in as many patties as well fit in easily and fry about 1 minute or less on each side or until browned. Turn the heat down to medium low and continue to cook the patties, turning frequently, until the juices run clear when the patties are pressed. Make all the patties this way and serve hot.

Recipe from At Home with Madhur Jaffrey. Copyright 2010 by Madhur Jaffrey. Published by Knopf. Reprinted by permission

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


This summer, we're gathering around The Global Grill. We're pulling apart the smoky flavors of grilled foods from around the world to season our own summer barbecues. We began our series with food writer Adam Rapoport of Bon Appetit, author of "The Grilling Book," and he told us the American appetite is globe-trotting in nature.

ADAM RAPOPORT: We love flavor, and I don't think we even think of it in terms of where it comes from. If you have a great recipe, whether it's Middle Eastern or Asian, whatever, you should think of it as a great recipe and something that you love to make. Now, I think that's what makes this a fun, exciting country to live in is that we are so open to so many different flavors and techniques.

SIEGEL: And in that spirit, we're joined today by an authority on flavors and techniques from the Indian subcontinent, the chef and writer Madhur Jaffrey. Welcome to the program.

MADHUR JAFFREY: Hello. How are you?

SIEGEL: Fine. And we're talking not just about food from India but also from Pakistan as well. I associate Indian food with rich sauces and curries. How prominent are grilled, drier foods in the region's cooking?

JAFFREY: Well, you know, when you think of India and Pakistan and you think of summer, seven months of summer...


JAFFREY: ...so we have a rather long summer. And we don't associate one three-month season with grilling. We associate the whole year with the kinds of foods that you would call grilled summer foods. So we actually have a world of foods that are marinated and then grilled, but they're not always grilled the way you think of in America. For example, you could take a piece of chicken. You can marinate it overnight and then cook it on a griddle...

SIEGEL: A griddle.

JAFFREY: ...outside. So, in other words, you have a hibachi-type situation that you've put outdoor somewhere. So a kebab is something that if understood properly can be made on a griddle. It can be made on skewers. It can be made with a little oil, hamburger-like, and you'll find all versions of this in India.

SIEGEL: Now, eventually, we get to the matter of the tandoor, which I gather isn't...


SIEGEL: ...either quite an oven or a grill. Can you describe the tandoor and how food is cooked in the tandoor?

JAFFREY: Well, the history of the tandoor is that it started off actually in the Middle East. And the tandoor was always a clay oven. It was always kept outdoors, and it heated to anywhere from 750 to 900 degrees Fahrenheit. So now, that's a hot, hot, hot...


JAFFREY: ...oven, and you have to get used to putting your hand in there. It's a whole technique. And if you put a whole chicken that you've marinated and stick it in, it seals the juices immediately. Ooh. Heat comes in, and the juices are sealed, and the spices go right into the chicken. And then it cooks quite fast, and it's very tender, very, very tender. So this came into India as far as the Punjab, which is now part of it is in Pakistan, part of it is in India.

And in 1947, just to give you a bit of history, when India was partitioned and Pakistan was formed, refugees fled from Pakistan - Hindu refugees - and they brought with them little tandoors, and that's how they came to Delhi.

SIEGEL: So the great separation in India was indeed a great mixing of cooking styles...

JAFFREY: Exactly, exactly. But it tends to be that these kind of kebabs, which are often meat, are eaten by people who obviously eat meat, and Muslims eat a lot of meat. So you find a lot of kebabs in Pakistan, and you find a lot of meat kebabs amongst the nonveg people of India, but they're exceedingly popular.

SIEGEL: Just different meats is the point, obviously.

JAFFREY: It's different meat. And another thing that's very, very popular in both India and Pakistan are innards because we don't throw anything away. We can't afford to.

SIEGEL: Innards, you were saying.

JAFFREY: Innards, innards.

SIEGEL: Sometimes, I should say, politely referred to as giblets in the U.S., yes.

JAFFREY: Well, giblets, so offal, offal.

SIEGEL: Offal. Well, that's not as attractive a word, offal.


SIEGEL: I've never seen offal on a menu, no.

JAFFREY: No. Offal sounds awful, yes, yes.


SIEGEL: Now, just to be clear, the hibachi and the griddle obviously make many of these dishes adaptable to the American backyard in the brief summer as we know it here for - in North America.


SIEGEL: But does the tandoor also have a place in the backyard, or is that too much?

JAFFREY: It does. You can get very cheap ones from the Indian shops, but they're hard to maintain because you have to rub clay on them every now and then. And most households in America don't have access to clay.

SIEGEL: Yes...


JAFFREY: Quick access to clay.


JAFFREY: But you can adapt a lot of the Indian grilled foods. For example, in Pakistan, this thing is called a Chappali Kebab. And a Chappali Kebab is like a hamburger. And then you put into it crushed coriander seeds and cumin seeds and little bits of tomato and green chilies and onions, and cook them like on your grill like a hamburger. And they are absolutely scrumptious. And then don't forget the potatoes on the side. You boil potatoes, rub them with oil. And then I have a plate into which I put cumin seeds ground and coriander seeds ground and chili powder ground and turmeric ground, all mixed up, and then I dip these potatoes and rub them with this mixture and then put them on the grill. And then I serve those with the Chappali Kebab, the Indian hamburger, and it's gorgeous. It's just gorgeous.


SIEGEL: It sounds delicious. Well, Madhur Jaffrey, thank you very much for talking with us. It's really...

JAFFREY: Well, thank you.

SIEGEL: It's fascinating and delicious to listen to you talk.

JAFFREY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: You can find a recipe for those hybrid hamburger kebabs at NPR's food blog The Salt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.