Parsi Tandoors and Tandoori Roast Leg of Lamb
Tandoors and Tandoori
Kitchens have been the hearth and heart of the home for centuries. Whether we are breaking bread, cooking up a storm, or simply feeding the family daily, kitchens worldwide have always emitted warmth and love. Our wonderful, simple, daily family meals are often a foundation for memories upon which we reminisce – remembering a favorite dish or a family specialty, that bring a flood of happiness to us.
The Ancient Tandoor
One of the main components of a kitchen is the stove or oven, where the cooking takes place. In Eastern households, the tandoor was for centuries the oven of the home. Derived from tanur in Persian and tandur in Dari, and referred to regionally as tandir in Turkish and Uzbek, and tannur in Arabic, a tandoor is a vessel similar to the modern-day Agha. The presence of the tandoor in Ancient Greek and Avestan vocabulary show the antiquity of this method of cooking. The words ‘tan,” meaning clay, and ‘nura,’ meaning fire, best reflect the original purpose of the vessel.
The tandoor is generally made of local clay, but can even be made of bricks and metal. Families who specialized in the tandoor-making trade passed it down generation after generation, honing their craft. Artifacts discovered in the Indus Valley civilization, in North West Pakistan and in the region at large, suggest that tandoors date back to 2500 BC, but it is not unreasonable to believe that they may have been around for many years prior to this date, used by the Persians. In the Middle East is a similar vessel called a tabun, but it is generally a shallower shorter, smaller vessel, different from the tandoor.
Reviving the Tandoor
With the invention of the modern-day oven, the art of cooking in a tandoor began to fade. However, tandoors are now being revived with pride. Many communities from Pakistan, India, Iran, Afghanistan and Syria that have migrated from the East to the West have established restaurants — or have even had home kitchens built — with their own traditional tandoors, able to prepare traditional tandoori food wherever they’ve settled.
The more modern term, tandoori, refers to any food cooked in a tandoor. Tandoori cooking produces the best naans, flat breads and Roghni breads in just minutes. The aromas are delectable, and the consistency and its flavours, delightful. The world famous Tandoori Chicken; the authentic Seekh Kebab –a meat mixture mushed to a pulp and stuck to a skewer; and the quickly cooked naan hanging in the hot tandoor, are all delicacies prepared in the tandoor, best eaten fresh.
Inside a Tandoor
Tandoors have been a means of cooking for centuries. Although it may have been initially used to cook marinated meats, much like everything else, its use has evolved for making breads and cooking vegetables. Fuel sources to stoke the fire in the tandoor were usually coal, although wood and dung were also used, dependent on availability and accessibility.
The average temperature in a tandoor begins at about 121°C (250°F), good for preparing vegetables, and goes up to 177°( (350°F) for cooking the meats, and between 260-329°C (500-625°F) and higher to bake the breads! Although there are no temperature controls, the tandoor artisans know how to use the vessel well, controlling the heat by stoking the fires burning at the very bottom of every tandoor to perfection.
Interestingly, the shape of the tandoor allows for versatility, and ingredients are cooked in various methods. While breads are stuck to the walls of the tandoor to get the maximum heat for quick cooking, thick and thin skewers of meat and vegetables are hung on a perpendicular skewer, allowing for varying cooking times and methods, and ingredients can also be placed in a pot and “hooked” on to be secure through the cooking.
The true genius of cooking in the tandoor is in the fact that there is no test to see if the food is ‘done’; its up to the sense of smell and judgment with the glance of experienced, well-trained eyes to know when the food is ready to be eaten!
Parsi food is a distinct cuisine that brings together Gujarati, Maharashtrian, Persian and even British flavors. It is both simple and healthy. Stews and khoresh with the ample use of dried fruits reflect its Persian roots, and the extensive use of seafood comes from a history of life in key port cities like Bombay and Karachi. An affinity for sweets was only increased with the influence of the British love of puddings and custards.
Parsi cooking is a familial one, accessible by all home cooks. The cuisine is not particularly meant for fine dining restaurants; it is about home and hearth. It best portrays seasonal cooking and minimal wastage, all of which is encouraged in the Parsi way of life.
Growing up in a conventional Parsi family, I was raised on traditional food every day of the week, but specialties and personal favorites were prepared on special occasions. My mother is an amazing cook who could create many international cuisines. Our family especially enjoyed a good roast leg of lamb.
Legend has it that in Britain a “Sunday Roast” began in the fifteenth century at the table of Henry VII, where roasted pieces of beef were served to the King and his guards – Yeoman Warders, nicknamed the ‘Beefeaters’ — every Sunday after church. By the nineteenth century the tradition of Sunday roast after church had entered most homes in Ireland and England.
Whereas the British roast meat was traditionally beef, Australians carried on this tradition with lamb, and today, many of us are spoiled for choice and can cater to everyone’s palate – roast chicken, pork or turkey. A traditional roast is served with vegetables, Yorkshire pudding and lots of gravy. Condiments such as mint jelly for lamb, cranberry jelly for turkey and mustard for pork and horseradish for beef are an addition to the table.
Anything “tandoori” means being cooked inside a tandoor – a deep vessel fired up with coal and heated to 260°C (500° F). But the word tandoori also refers to the flavors used on meats cooked in a tandoor. While the food comes out moist and succulent and the meat is delectable, soft, and falling off the bone when cooked to perfection, there is no gravy in tandoori food. Even the most splendid traditional roast can use a twist once in a while, and this is why I am sharing my favorite way of preparing a roast prepared in an oven, bringing together Parsi flavors and English traditions. The difference here is that it will leave a ‘gravy’ behind, which can be either reduced or simply emulsified to be smooth. This recipe also allows you to marinate it well ahead of time and cook it the next day. It is best served with freshly roasted potatoes and hard-boiled eggs. Try it out at your next family gathering.