Thursday, March 25, 2010

How to make a tandoor

March 25

Last night I had dinner with my friend Blain Howard at Tamba, a new Indian restaurant on that stretch of Lexington Avenue in Murray Hill known as Curry Hill. We were joined for much of the meal by the restaurant’s owner, Sikender Malik, a former civil servant from Delhi who for a number of years ran Malika Palace in Queens and Malika in Midtown Manhattan.

His wife Daljeet is the executive chef.

Since they’re from Delhi, the food at Tamba is mostly northern Indian, but, Sikender explained, the restaurant that previously occupied that space was a southern Indian restaurant, so they kept some southern dishes on the menu — dosai, iddly etc. — to try to retain some of the previous restaurant's customers.

Makes sense.

The name Tamba means copper, which Sikender said was good for you — that if you let water sit in a copper vessel overnight and then drank it, it had wonderful curative properties.

Might be an Ayurvedic thing.

There is a copper statue of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, wife of Lord Vishnu, on the bar. She looked well.

The place has just been open around nine weeks, but the Maliks managed to snag some good press.

And by good, I mean positive. This piece of — well, I don’t like to criticize other journalists’ work, but they said Tamba’s been open for three months, not nine weeks — not that big a difference, but still wrong — they spelled Daljeet’s name wrong and, at the end of the segment, Tony Tantillo, in praising the food, said to Daljeet, "that’s why you’ve been in business for so long.”

Even if they had been open for three months, that’s not a long time, even for New York. So it’s nice press, but it’s not good.

It does present a nice view of a tandoor, however, the traditional top-loading northern Indian oven.

Daljeet’s chef made her tandoor. That’s the custom: If you’re a tandoori chef, you know how to make a tandoor.

That was explained to me back in 1996, when I interviewed Jagat Ram, who at the time was chef of Rang Mahal, a high-end Indian restaurant in Bangkok’s Rembrandt Hotel.

He said a tandoor is made of clay mixed with some straw, jute and finely powdered glass. It’s shaped into a round oven, open at the top. A wood fire is built inside the oven and it burns for a couple of days, acting as a sort of reverse kiln.

Another layer of clay mixture is applied and then it’s fired again.

Next the oven is seasoned, literally, with a mixture of yogurt, salt, mustard oil and a coarse brown sugar called jaggeri. That’s used to coat the inside of the oven and it’s baked again, but more slowly this time, because if the fire’s too hot you run the risk of cracking the entire oven, and you’d have to start over.

That seasoning process is repeated five to seven times. It not only helps to insulate the oven (burnt, liquefied sugar is pretty serious stuff), but it also keeps the clay from flaking off onto the food. That’s particularly important because naan and other flat breads are placed directly onto the walls of the oven when they’re baked.

Anyway, that’s a tandoor.

What we ate:

pappadum — spiced crackers
lasani gobhi— fried cauliflower in garlic-tomato sauce
chicken dosa — a sort of south Indian lentil crêpe stuffed with chicken and served with a spicy sauce called sambar
“chicken delight” — little chicken pinwheels clearly intended for Western customers
goan lamb vindaloo — spicy lamb curry
palak paneer — spinach with cheese cubes
assorted naan
coconut, tomato, mint and tamarind chutneys
pistachio kulfi
masala tea
The seasoning mixture, along with the jute and clay, help to insulate the oven (burnt, crystalized sugar is pretty serious stuff.


Anonymous said...

Hey Bret! Could you bake regular Euro-style bread in a tandoor oven, do you think?
Nancy J.

Bret Thorn said...

That would be difficult, Nancy, as a tandoor has no flat surfaces, except at its base where the fire is. Breads cooked in tandoors are stuck to the sides, and a traditional Western-style loaf wouldn't stick.
Meats cooked in a tandoor are generally stuck on long metal skewers.