Tandoori Murghi (Tandoori Chicken)

July 14, 2012

No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.
~Mahatma Gandhi

Unlike some other iconic Indian cuisine often tied to ancient origins, tandoori murghi has relatively recent roots. The tale nonetheless is steeped in intrigue, politics, religion and history.

For centuries, India labored under British dominion, a vestige of the British East Indies Company’s centuries long, relentless mercantile expansion and Parliament’s political acquiesence to the Raj‘s oppresive, sometimes brutal, colonial visit. Like guests who were really never invited and then became cruelly rude and refused to leave. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British East India Company was dissolved and rule was transferred to the empire under Queen Victoria who was even proclaimed Empress of India. A cultural conundrum on the best of days. I could go on, back and forth in history, but space does not permit.

In the 1920s, Mohammed Karamchand Gandhi, who was indelibly marked by Indian culture and trained as a barrister in London, emerged as a steady voice of Indian nationalism. Commonly known as Mahatma Gandhi, he espoused non-violent civil disobedience of oppressive British policies which he had earlier developed in South Africa. To name a few, he attempted to ease poverty, expand women’s rights, forge religious and ethnic harmony, enhance economic self sufficiency and exalt class equality. Political rivals dismissed him with Winston Churchill once ridiculing him as a “half naked fakir.” During this same time, a humble young man named Kundan Lal Gujral opened a restaurant called Moti Mahal in culturally vibrant Peshawer, a district of the northwest frontier of British India. He experimented with cooking young birds in tandoors, the clay ovens used by locals to cook bread. The earthenware kilns were/are bell shaped, set into the earth, and fired with wood or charcoal, reaching temperatures of about 900 F. The result of this simple trial and error? The inside was perfectly done and the outside crispy with spice galore.

By the end of World War II, Britain capitulated and finally in 1947 India attained independence. The Punjab province was partitioned with the eastern sector joining Pakistan and western India. So, Peshawer, with a predominately Muslim population, became part of Pakistan which revived a long standing dispute of whether India would be an united Hindu dominated state or would have a separate Muslim state to the north. Rebellion and carnage ensued between Muslims on one hand and Hindus and Sikhs on the other. Gujral was one of many Sikh and Hindu refugees who had to flee the upheaval by heading toward India. He relocated his restaurant to Daryaganj, Delhi, a move that as chance would have it brought fame.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, happened upon Moti Mahal and was so impressed by his tandoori murghi dish that he began reserving state banquets there. Foreign dignitaries began pouring in — Presidents John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Soviet leaders Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, the King of Nepal, the Shah of Iran, et al. The close relationship between the restaurant and India’s preeminent leaders endured for several generations, even making sumptuous Tandoori Murghi standard fare on Indian menus throughout the world.

At first blush, this receipe looks a tad daunting.  But, a careful read shows that once the tandoori masala is made and the lemon curd purchased (both well in advance), the prep and roast or grill are a snap.  Weekday grub.  Should you opt for the sauté and roast route and time is a factor, the ghee is not essential.

TANDOORI CHICKEN

4 lb whole chicken

1/2 C tandoori masala (see below)
2 C plain Greek yogurt
2 T fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
4 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced

3 T ghee (see below) or unsalted butter
1 T grapeseed oil

1/2 C lemon curd, prepared or homemade

Remove the neck and giblets from the chicken. Trim excess fat (usually found in the cavity) and then rinse the chicken with cold water and pat dry thoroughly. Using a pair of kitchen shears, cut all the way down one side of the backbone, just cutting through the small rib bones close to the backbone, but not through the center of the backbone itself. Next, cut all the way down the other side of the backbone, removing it entirely. Reserve the neck and backbone for stock.

Flatten by firmly pressing the heel of your hand down over the breastbone. This will open the carcass and break the breastbone so as to flatten out the chicken. With a sharp knife, score the chicken flesh rather deeply at diagonals about 1 1/2″ apart on the meaty side.

Whisk together 1/3 cup of the tandoori masala, yogurt, ginger and garlic in a medium bowl. Place the chicken in a large glass baking dish or large ziploc freezer bag and coat thoroughly with the marinade.  Massage the marinade thoroughly inside and outside the chicken, including all gashes, crevasses and valleys. Turning occasionally, allow to marinate in the refrigerator overnight, but preferably 18-24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 450 F

Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and allow it to reach room temperature. Then, sprinkle the chicken with some tandoori masala on both sides. Heat a large, heavy ovenproof skillet over high heat, and add the ghee and oil. Once hot, sear the chicken skin side down first until browned, about 5 minutes on each side. Then place in the oven until a fork inserted in the meaty part of a thigh exudes pale yellow juices, about 20 minutes. Throughout the roasting process, baste regularly with lemon curd. The goal is crispy yet tender. Remove to a cutting board or platter and loosely tent the chicken with foil. Allow to rest about 5-8 minutes or so before serving.

Serve with sides to your liking, such as thinly sliced fresh onion rings, cucumber salad, lemon wedges, spiced basmati rice, naan, and mint or mango chutney.

Tandoori Masala
1/3 C coriander seeds
1/3 C cumin seeds
2 T green cardamom pods
1 T whole cloves
1 T whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2″ piece cinnamon stick, broken into pieces

2 tablespoons pimentón agridulce or paprika
1 T sea salt
2 T turmeric
1 t cayenne pepper
Pinch ground mace
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Heat the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cardamom pods, cloves, peppercorns, bay leaves and cinnamon in a large heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring often, until the cumin becomes aromatic and just lightly browned, about 2-3 minutes. Allow to cool some, then grind the spices in a spice grinder or coffee mill until fine, and then transfer to a bowl with the pimentón or paprika, salt, turmeric, cayenne pepper, mace and nutmeg. Mix thoroughly and store in an airtight container in a dark place.

Ghee
1 lb unsalted butter, roughly cut into pieces

Place butter in medium heavy saucepan over medium high heat and bring to a lively simmer or quiet boil, about 2-3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, and the butter will form a first foam which will disappear. Ghee is done when a second foam forms on top of butter, and the butter turns slightly golden, about 7 minutes. Brown milk solids will naturally fall to the bottom of the pan. Allow to cool for several minutes. Slowly pour into ovenproof container through a fine mesh strainer and/or cheesecloth layers. If not using immediately, store in an airtight container and keep free from moisture.

Pourboire: alternatively, grill the chicken. Preheat a grill to between medium high and medium. Build a gentle, yet hot fire. Make sure that you have a fire that is substantial enough to maintain a consistent temperature for up to 30-45 minutes. When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate to reduce sticking issues.

Then, remove the chicken from the marinade, allow to reach room temperature and sprinkle with some tandoori masala. Place the bird on the hot grate and grill, starting with skin side down, turning occasionally (but not obsessively) to prevent over charring, until cooked through, some 25-30 minutes total. Baste wth lemon curd on the tail end of the grilling process, particularly focused on the skin side. The bird is done when the thickest part of the thigh reaches 160 F by a meat thermometer which is not touching the bone. Again loosely tent and allow to rest before carving.

Also, in lieu of lemon curd, you may add fresh lemon juice to the yogurt-tandori masala marinade.

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