Cheap Eats:
Tandoori Murghi
  Marinated Spiced Chicken

Unless you have children, are an artist, or are involved in a specific line of scientific research, you probably don’t think much about clay. However, clay is pretty interesting stuff. Or perhaps I should say “clays,” as this mineral has several forms. Clays have the widest importance and most extended uses of any of the earth minerals. Vast amounts of cool, scientific stuff could be said at this point, because X-rays and electron microscopes have, in the last century, given us the ability to really study clays in depth, and what is being discovered is fascinating. (I still remember an article in Science News that I read several years ago pointing out similarities in the way clays form and the way RNA replicates.) But that would take up too much space, so I’m going to limit the discussion to a couple of the more practical aspects of clays.

Among the most vital aspects of clays is the fact that they provide the environment for almost all plant growth on the planet. In addition to providing porosity, aeration, and water retention, clays also supply whole bunches of minerals that plants need, including potassium oxide, calcium oxide, and even nitrogen.

But even before humans were really worried about why or how plants grew, they had figured out that clay was handy. Clay was used for creating pottery long before anyone was keeping records of what was going on, and pottery fragments are key elements in studying past civilizations. Clay bricks also date back to the misty dawn of unrecorded history.

Clay has long been important for cooking. The form clay takes when being employed in the cooking process varies by culture and century. Australian aborigines in some regions still use it to cook ducks; gut the duck, slap a layer of wet clay over the whole bird, and toss it in the hot coals. When the clay is hard and completely dry, smack it to open it and pull off the large pieces of what has now become pottery, removing at the same time the duck’s feathers, which are trapped in the baked clay. You are left with a succulent, perfectly cooked duck.

Throughout the world, cooking vessels of various kinds are made of clay. Of course, technically, we could lump into this category all the stoneware bean pots and porcelain soufflé dishes produced worldwide, for they are all, indeed, made from various clays. But there are cuisines that use clay in a rougher, unglazed form, such as Morocco’s tagine slaoui and Germany’s Schlemmertopf. The qualities of retaining both moisture and heat make clay pottery an ideal medium for roasting and slow cooking.

But clay was also the original material for building ovens, and today is still the material of choice for this function in much of the world. Among the world’s notable clay ovens, India’s tandoor may be the best known. Early clay ovens developed by Syrian Bedouins and Persians were introduced into India by means of invasion. Then the Pashtun tribes of Pakistan modified and refined these early ovens into the tandoor that is used throughout India (and in most good Indian restaurants) today.

The clay-lined tandoor is shaped like a barrel with a vent at the bottom. Meats are put on skewers and lowered into the heat. Tandoors, when fired up, produce temperatures in excess of 500°F, so meat cooks quickly. Because of the way the tandoor is set up, meat lowered into it actually grills, roasts, and smokes at the same time. Hence, it is difficult to perfectly replicate the taste of tandoor-cooked foods in a conventional oven.

Foods cooked in the tandoor are generally identified by the word tandoori, as in tandoori chicken, or tandoori murghi. In India, as well as in most Indian restaurants, red food coloring is added to the marinade, which makes the chicken bright red. This tradition got started as a form of advertising. In a bustling marketplace, when you had gone to the effort of producing this exceptional dish, you wanted to make sure customers could tell that you were selling the “good stuff.” However, it adds nothing to the taste, and can be left out. The recipe below is vibrantly flavorful and actually pretty close to what you want tandoori chicken to taste like, but without having to redecorate your kitchen. Enjoy.

Tandoori Murghi
(Marinated Spiced Chicken)

3½ - 4½ lb. chicken, cut into serving pieces

1½ tsp. hot chilli powder (see Note below)

1½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. ground black pepper

3 Tbsp. lemon juice
6 rounded tablespoons plain yogurt

4 cloves garlic, finely minced

2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped, or 1‑½ tsp. ground ginger

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 Tbsp. ground coriander seed

½ tsp. crushed red pepper

Remove skin and fat from the chicken. Make deep diagonal cuts on chicken pieces at 1½-inch intervals. Mix the chilli powder, salt, pepper, and lemon juice together, then rub this mixture on the chicken, making sure you get it into the cuts. Set aside for 20 minutes.

Combine the yogurt and the remaining spices in a bowl, and beat with a fork to combine. (If you want to have red chicken, ½ tsp. red food coloring can be added at this stage, too.) Put the chicken into a large bowl and spread the yogurt mixture over the chicken, rubbing it well into the cuts. Cover and refrigerate overnight, or for as long as 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 500°F. Remove chicken from the marinade, letting any excess marinade drip off (but don’t scrape anything off that is clinging). Place the chicken on a rack set in a roasting pan or drip pan. Cook chicken, turning occasionally, for about 25‑30 minutes, or until juices run clear. Serve immediately.

Traditionally, this is served with very thinly sliced white onion, a little snipped cilantro, and lemon wedges.

Serves 4.


If you don’t have Indian chilli powder (which is not the same as North American chili powder, which not only has one less “l,” but is also a blend, and not straight pepper, as chilli powder is), then substitute cayenne and sweet paprika blended at a ratio of about 1 to 2 (so ½ tsp. cayenne and 1 tsp. paprika for this recipe—though you can adjust this upward if you enjoy the heat).

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