Tandoori-style Chicken

Chicken tandoori is always a favorite — the velvety texture of piquant and lemony chicken is hard to pass up.

But… in fact we have skipped ordering chicken tandoori the last few times we visited Indian restaurants — opting instead to explore new dishes. Always good to try new things, but this has left an itch that hasn’t been scratched in well over a year. Solution? Pull out the recipe file, fire up the oven!

The ingredients for this iconic South Asian dish are not as exotic as you might think — you probably have most of them in your pantry and fridge: lemon, ginger, cumin, coriander seed, turmeric and green chilies in a plain yogurt base. With the popularity of South Asian flavors these days, most people will also have garam masala on a pantry shelf as well. If not, you might find garam masala and the optional ingredient, chaat masala, available in bulk in your local natural foods or health food store — here in Maryland, the Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op, and on Oahu, Down To Earth, have bulk spices you can buy by the spoonful so you can try new spices without getting stuck with shelves full of ones you don’t use often or decide you don’t like.

Two keys to achieving the right balance of flavor and moist texture under the high heat which is the hallmark of tandoori cooking are skinless chicken and at least 24 hours in the yogurt marinade. The yogurt both tenderizes the meat and helps it retain moisture; while removing the skin allows the marinade to thoroughly work its magic. This recipe is an amalgam of different recipes we’ve made at home or school over the last 12 years and is still evolving…

Since we’re not fans of artificial food coloring and red dye contributes nothing to the flavor, we omit the red dye paste that is included in many recipes and let the food speak for itself. (“Eat me, eat me!”) Our research has turned up some natural coloring sources that have been used in tandoori pastes, including cayenne pepper, Kashimiri chilies, and annatto (aka achiote). We’ve tried both the cayenne and the Kashimiri chile, and would use Kashimiri chilies if they are available — it adds both heat and flavor as well as color — but it just isn’t something that is a pantry staple yet. We just learned about achiote as an alternative, so a further evolution of this recipe may include that, too — we’ll have to see how it affects the flavor.

Serves 4 persons

3 to 3 1/2 lbs. (1.3 – 1.5kg) chicken, whole legs
1 whole lemon, juiced and rind cut into 6 pieces
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
1-1/2 cup (180g) plain yogurt (full fat is best, low fat is OK; can’t recommend non-fat)
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 thumb of ginger, peeled and grated (about 2 TBL)
1 1/4 tsp ground coriander
3/4 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp garam masala
2 – 4 serrano chilies, seeded and diced (we usually use 2)
(keep the seeds and up the heat factor exponentially if that floats your boat)
1/2 tsp sweet paprika (optional – more for color than flavor, not used here)
ghee or unsalted butter, melted (for basting)
1 lemon, quartered (for serving)
Chaat masala (optional, for serving)

Remove skin from chicken legs: With kitchen shears or sharp knife, score skin all the way around the tip of the drumstick, then pull skin from thigh over the tip of drumstick and off. Cut flesh on both sides in several places.

Sprinkle lemon juice, then salt over chicken and massage into meat.

Combine yogurt, lemon rinds, ginger, cumin, coriander, turmeric, serrano chilies, and paprika, if using. Place in glass or other non-metallic container, or zippered plastic bag. Add chicken pieces, and completely cover with marinade. Refrigerate at least 24 hours, and up to 48 hours.

Preheat oven to 500F. Set oven rack to upper third of oven.

Melt ghee or butter in oven as it pre-heats, carefully remove ghee once warm through.

Remove chicken from marinade, and gently pat dry but do not rub off all the marinade.

Place smaller rack on a cookie sheet, and set chicken over rack. Baste with ghee, and bake for 20 minutes. Turn chicken over, baste again and cook for another 10-15 minutes, or until chicken is thoroughly cooked through. If chicken starts to burn, cover affected area with a foil tent.

While hot, squeeze lemon juice over chicken and sprinkle with chaat masala if using. Chaat masala is a fine powdered mix of spices that adds an extra tang and punch to the finished dish — similar to sprinkling sumac on Persian and other Middle Eastern style grilled meats.

Serve with basmati rice and your favorite side dishes.

Vegetable side dishes you might like with this: Tarka Dal, Brussels Sprouts or Cabbage with Coconut, Chaat Potatoes, and Aloo Gobi.

Or if you have more time, this tasty pickle: Indian Spiced Cauliflower, Daikon & Carrot Pickle

Another yogurt-based marinade: Persian-style Grilled Chicken

With Basmati Rice with Peas and Cucumber Yogurt Salad