A Tandoor is a cylindrical clay oven used in cooking and baking certain types of foods in Azerbaijan, India, Turkey, Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, the Balkans, the Middle East, Central Asia as well as Burma and Bangladesh; the most famous being the Tandoori Murg (Chicken Roasted), Muton Tikka (Lamb Meat Balls- Bonesless), Chicken Tikka (Chicken Bonesless) and Veg Grills such as Paneer Tikka (Roasted Cheese) and Bread varieties like Tandoori roti and naan.
The origin of the name ‘Tandoor’ has roots in antiquity. It probably came from the Sanskrit word 'kandu', meaning a large, bowl shaped vessel. This became Tandoor when the "T" sound gradually replaced the 'k' sound.
‘Tandoor’ is also said to have been derived from Persian (Iranian) word ‘Tannur’, derived from Babylonian word ‘tinuru’ based on Semitic word ‘nar’ meaning fire. In Turkey, Tannur became Tandur.
Another theory is that the name is derived from Pashto, a language spoken in Afghanistan and some areas of Pakistan and India, in which tata means hot and andar means inside. The word “Tandoori” is the adjective meaning "pertaining to the Tandoor" and is used to describe a dish cooked in a Tandoor.
Whatever may have been the origins of the word ‘Tandoor’, the cooking style can logically be traced to the beginnings of human civilization when man first found meat that fell into a fire not only became easier to eat, but also acquired a pleasant flavour.
Evidence of the use of Tandoor has been found in Ladakh area of extreme North India, where spit clay ovens have been excavated with bones near them, leading experts to believe those people actually roasted meat before eating it. The interesting thing is the dating of this excavation – 6700 BC, a full 9300 years ago.
Evidence also exists that Tandoor may have been native to India dating back to 3000 BC. Small mud plastered ovens resembling Tandoor with a side door have been found in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro settlements of ancient Indus valley in Pakistan, the most noteworthy excavations being in early-Harappan contexts on the Makran coast, including the mound site of Balakot, Pakistan.
More such excavations have been found all over North India, dating up to 2000 BC. Cooking food at a high temperature in a clay pot can also be traced back to when the Egyptians were building the pyramids and baking bread for the workers over 2000 years.
The first proper mention of the Tandoori cooking style is found in the medical treatise ‘Sushrut Samhita Sursthanam’ of the ancient Vedic era, written by ancient physician Sushrut, who is also regarded as the father of surgery in India. He also specified that meat cooked on open charcoal fire (dry roasted), are easy on the digestion. Another famous physician of the BC era, Charvak, describes healthy ways of cooking meats on sit fires, the right marinades as well as the healthy smearing and tenderizers that could impart maximum flavor to the meats.
The noted poet Amir Khusrow (1253-1325), associated with royal courts of more than seven rulers of Delhi Sultanate, notes breads like Naan-e-tanuk and Naan-e-Tanuri, cooked on Tawa and Tandoor respectively, being served at the imperial court.
In Afghanistan, Tandoor was used as a community oven where people would come with the dough, the facilitator would bake bread for fee.
During Jahangir period in India, Tandoor became popular in Peshawar and Lahore. In Lahore un-leavened breads called Tandoori Roti, and Tandoori Paratha became popular. In Peshawar, Naan would incorporate nuts. In Kashmir, they would make Sheermal, resembling Danish pastry. Jahangir’s love for Tandoori food, lead to the innovation of portable Tandoors. Chooza (squabs), marinated pieces of Chicken, marinated pieces of sheep were cooked in the Tandoor and thus the first Tandoori chicken was invented.
It is thought to have travelled to Central Asia and the Middle East along with the Roma people, who originated amongst the Thar Desert tribes.
Tandoori chicken originated during Jahangir period, but the commercial popularization of Tandoor in restaurants and hotels, is attributed to a man named Lala Kundan Lal Gujral, who opened a restaurant called Moti Mahal in Peshawar during 1920s. After India’s Independence and Partition, Kundan Lal Gujral moved to India and started Moti Mahal in Delhi. It had the first built-in Tandoor installed in 1948.
The heat for a Tandoor is traditionally generated by a charcoal or wood fire, burning within the Tandoor itself, thus exposing the food to live-fire, radiant heat cooking and hot-air convection cooking; smoking by the fat and food juices that drip on to the charcoal. The food is thus permeated with an aroma of marinade, clay and charcoal smoke; lending it an intoxicating and tempting aroma. Also the radiant heat transfer cooks the meat, in a manner that no Vitamins and Proteins are lost while cooking, retaining its original nutrition value and flavours, while the oil from marinades and fat from meat get burned and drained over the charcoal fire. Hence, Tandoori cooking is a very healthy cooking style.
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