Large clay cooking ovens known as tandoors, stoked with wood or charcoal until they get very hot, are used in northern India for cooking meat, poultry and fish; meat and vegetables threaded on skewers; and the flatbread called naan. Tandoori paste, a combination of fragrant seeds and chiles, gives foods cooked in the tandoor a distinctive color and a complex flavor. Portable tandoor ovens are available for sale, but you can replicate the flavor at home in your oven or on the barbecue.
Tandoori Paste Demystified
Tandoori paste is readily available in the Asian foods section of the supermarket, but making your own allows you to adjust the heat to your taste. Begin by toasting cumin, coriander and cardamom seeds in a sauté pan over medium heat until they’re fragrant. Combine the toasted seeds with garam masala, chili powder, black pepper, garlic, ginger and chopped red chili in a food processor or blender. Add lemon or lime juice and coriander leaves, and process it into a smooth paste. Mix the resulting paste with plain yogurt before spreading it on the chicken.
Choose Your Bird
Broiler-fryer chickens are young birds, usually weighing between 3 and 4 pounds, and are best broiled, roasted or barbecued. Roasting chickens are larger, and, as the name suggests, best roasted in the oven. Since you’re cooking the whole chicken with tandoori paste, stay away from stewing chickens or hens. They’re older and tougher. Small rock Cornish hens and large capons can also be roasted. Before rubbing the chicken with the tandoori paste, check the cavities for a giblet bag or neck. If you have time, brine the chicken overnight for an exceptionally tasty, moist result.
Seasoning the Chicken
Rest the chicken on its back on a cutting board or other clean surface. Beginning at the cavity at the bottom of the breast, work your fingers gently under the skin to separate it while taking care not to tear it. Rub tandoori paste on the meat under the skin, working the paste toward the wings and down the sides, then pat the skin back into place. Rub more tandoori paste over the outside of the chicken, including the skin on the breast.
Cooking the Chicken
If you’re roasting the chicken, place it on a rack in a roasting pan and cook it in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven until the internal temperature, when checked with a probe thermometer in the meatiest part of the bird, reads 165 F. To grill a whole chicken, light one side of the grill and heat it until the grill reaches 350 F. Put the chicken, breast side up, on the unlit side of the grill and lower the lid. Both of these methods take about two hours. Whole chicken takes four to five hours on high in a slow cooker.
Traditionally, food coloring, rather than spices, gives tandoori paste its distinct color. Add red and yellow food coloring to create a deep orange color. You can buy pre-made garam masala or make your own by combining fennel seeds, ground cardamom, clove and cinnamon, coarsely ground black paper and a bay leaf in a small pan, toasting them lightly and grinding them. If you have leftover tandoori paste, it can be frozen for up to three months. Reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses by wearing food grade gloves while working with the chicken.
- Texas A&M University: The Southwestern Bell World Room -- The Cuisine of India
- Purdue University: You’re the Chef -- Purchasing Poultry
- University of Illinois Extension: Brining Is the Secret to Grilling Tender Meats
- Foodsafety.gov: Meat and Poultry Roasting Chart
- Foodsafety.gov: Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures
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