Tandoori chicken may just be the most well-known of all Indian dishes – the gateway drug to Indian food for the meat-and-potatoes crowd who run at a whisper of the word “curry.” It gets knocked for being the go-to, safe dish for Westerners, but even for the Indophile who would gladly sail the curry seas in a ship made of garlic naan, tandoori chicken is still something special.
Of course, it can be a mess when done wrong. In my book, the cardinal chicken sin is lack of moisture, thanks to some combination of the following factors:
- not marinating or brining the meat before cooking,
- not bringing the meat up to room temperature before cooking,
- cooking the meat at too high a temperature,
- not basting the meat during the cooking process,
- not letting the meat rest at least 5 minutes after cooking, and
- a uniquely American fear of under-cooked meat.
If you’ve been to a backyard barbecue where the main dish is a boneless, skinless chicken breast drier than the Atacama desert with some KC masterpiece BBQ sauce slathered on at the last minute, you know what I’m talking about.
A bird done right, however, is a thing to behold, and that’s certainly the case with stellar tandoori chicken – namely, perfect, juicy meat; smoky, charred bits on the end; and beautiful but familiar notes of cinnamon and cloves plus the less familiar but intoxicating flavor of cardamom. It’s the gateway drug for good reason.
Outside of India, the best versions I’ve had can be found at Rasika in Washington, DC, and Kashmir Restaurant in Penang, Malaysia. In India, our favorite tandoori chicken was served by the Peacock Restaurant at our hotel in Jaipur, the Pearl Palace. This restaurant is ranked #8 on TripAdvisor out of 1,516 Jaipur restaurants, and deservedly so. Everything we had there, including our go-to dishes that we’ve had all over India and Asia, was outstanding.
Since we tend toward the curry fiend end of the spectrum, we usually give tandoori chicken a pass. But, H was feeling a little fatigued by curry and in the mood for something simple – tandoori fit the bill perfectly. I’m not going to lie: though my Kashmiri Korma with lamb was one of the very best versions I’ve ever had, I kept sneaking jealous glances at H’s plate all night long and couldn’t resist ordering my own plate of tandoori the very next night.
Luckily for you, you don’t have to fly all the way to Jaipur to get it; I’ve got the recipe, right here on this very blog – yay! I’ve left it largely unchanged, except for a few tweaks to the techniques since I’m guessing most of you don’t have a tandoori oven. Please note that unlike most recipes you’ll find on a blog such as this, I have not vetted the recipe myself (for obvious reasons). In the name of scientific experimentation and good eats, I hope you’ll forgive me and give it a shot yourself.
- One whole chicken, preferably pasture-raised, broken down into pieces (legs, thighs, breast)
- Melted butter for basting
- 1 tsp. red chili powder
- 5 tbsp. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
- healthy pinch of salt
- 6 tbsp. plain yogurt (greek, full-fat – or better yet, your own!)
- 7 tbsp. heavy cream
- 2 1/2 tsp. grated ginger (fresh, not from a tube, s’il vous plaît)
- 2 1/2 tsp. grated garlic (again fresh, not from a tube or jar)
- 1 tsp. freshly ground cumin seed (pre-ground if you must, but grinding spices for immediate use gives the best flavor)
- 1/2 tsp. garam masala (recipe below)
- 1 tsp. Indian saffron
Remove the skin and rinse the chicken, then pat dry. Make a few deep incisions on each piece – three on the breasts and thighs, two on the drumstick (save the wings for future use, e.g. chicken stock).
Make a paste of the chili powder, lemon juice, and salt – rub paste over the chicken evenly. Set aside for 15 minutes. While the chicken is resting, prepare the marinade by whisking all ingredients together in a bowl. Add chicken to the bowl and toss, coating evenly. Cover and marinate in the fridge for four hours.
A charcoal grill is best for this since the smoke flavor is key, so if you have one, prepare it as usual (see here for a good primer on charcoal grilling if you’re unfamiliar). For those with neither the time nor inclination, pre-heat your gas grill to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and remove chicken from the fridge, allowing it to come up to room temperature before cooking. Grill for about 4 to 5 minutes per side.
Place a cooling rack over a rimmed baking sheet and line with foil for easy clean-up. Place the grilled chicken on the rack, allowing the excess moisture to drip onto the foil-covered baking sheet for about 5 minutes. Baste chicken with melted butter, and place back on the grill for 3-4 minutes until a little char develops, basting with butter as needed. (NOTE: If you are really freaked out about under-cooking, use a meat thermometer and stick it halfway into the juiciest part of the meat. The USDA says 165 degrees Fahrenheit is the magic temp that kills all bacteria. I suggest cooking it less than that, say 155 or 160 degrees, as the chicken will continue to cook after it has been pulled off the grill.)
DO NOT SERVE IMMEDIATELY. Let chicken rest for a few minutes (5 at least), to cool down but more importantly, to let those juices in the meat settle. Tent it loosely with foil if you are concerned about it getting too cold.
- 5 tsp. cumin seeds
- 1 tsp. whole black peppercorns
- 3 inches of cinnamon stick
- 1/2 tsp. whole cloves
- 1 tsp. whole green cardamom pods
Blend into a fine powder using a spice mill or coffee grinder. You can also do it the old-fashioned way in a mortar and pestle, but why put yourself through all that?