Eric Akis: Tandoori chicken is heaven from the spice rack

Eric Akis

Today’s recipes stirred to life when, during my holiday break, I took stock of what was in my spice drawer and found numerous items to flavour a meal with, Indian-style. Not long after, I was making tandoori-style chicken and side dishes to serve with it.

I say “tandoori-style” because I did not cook the chicken in a tandoor — a large, cylindrical clay oven traditionally used in Indian restaurants and homes fitted with one. That type of oven is very hot and cooks chicken and other foods quickly, giving them a rich colour, pleasing smoky taste and appealing charred bits.

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At home, I just have a regular oven, but by turning the temperature fairly high and marinating the bird before cooking it, I ended up with a flavourful chicken full of rich colour that was definitely tandoori in style.

When making the marinade in the past, I’ve most often used the spice-rich tandoori paste you’ll find for sale at supermarkets, mixing it with yogurt and citrus juice. But this time, thanks to my full spice drawer, I made my own mixture.

I reviewed several recipes, and in the process learned why Charmaine Solomon writes in her book Encyclopedia of Asian Food that there are probably as many recipes for tandoori chicken as there are cooks. None I found was quite the same, but all used a mix of spices, albeit in varying quantities and types, and involved marinating the chicken with yogurt and fresh ingredients such as garlic.

Spices such as Indian-style chili powder, cayenne pepper, paprika and/or turmeric help give tandoori chicken its distinctive red — with hints of orange — colour. In many recipes, that bright, eye-catching colour also comes from red food colouring.

My recipe combines a range of flavouring techniques and gives you the option of using food colouring. If you don’t want to, your chicken will taste the same — it just won’t be as robustly coloured.

I served my tandoori-style chicken with basmati rice pilaf and tangy raita, for which I have included recipes. You could also serve the chicken with warm naan bread, chutney and a steamed green vegetable.

Tandoori-style Chicken 

Richly flavoured with spices, garlic, ginger, tangy yogurt and lemon, this chicken smells incredible as it roasts, and tastes splendid once cooked. You’ll need to plan ahead, though, as the chicken needs to marinate at least 12 hours before you cook it. Serve the chicken with the rice and raita recipes, and, if desired, with naan bread, chutney and a steamed green vegetable.

Preparation time: 30 minutes, plus marinating time

Cooking time: About 45 minutes

Makes: Four to six servings

1 cup thick, plain yogurt

1 Tbsp lemon juice

3 large garlic cloves, minced

2 tsp finely grated fresh ginger

1 1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp paprika

3/4 tsp freshly and coarsely ground black pepper

1/2 tsp ground turmeric

1/2 tsp ground cayenne pepper

1/2 tsp ground cardamom

1/4 tsp ground allspice

1 tsp red food colouring (optional; I used Club House brand)

6 medium-to-large bone-in chicken thighs (see Eric’s options)

6 medium-to-large bone-in chicken drumsticks

• vegetable oil or oil spray

• lemon wedges, cilantro or mint sprigs and thinly sliced raw onion, to taste, for garnish

Place the yogurt, lemon juice, garlic, ginger, salt, coriander, cinnamon, cumin, paprika, pepper, turmeric, cayenne pepper, cardamom, allspice and food colouring, if using, in a bowl large enough to hold the chicken. Whisk this marinade well to combine.

Add the chicken to marinade and toss to coat. Cover, refrigerate and marinate the chicken 12 to 24 hours. Preheat oven to 425 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Set a baking rack on top of the baking sheet. Lightly brush or spray the baking rack with oil. Set the chicken, skin-side up, on the baking rack. Set and spread a teaspoon or so of the remaining marinade on top of each piece of chicken.

Roast chicken in the middle oven 40 to 45 minutes, or until cooked. If desired, for more deeply coloured chicken, turn the oven to broil, and broil the chicken a minute or two.

Serve the chicken garnished with lemon wedges, cilantro (or mint) sprigs and sliced onion.

Eric’s options: I left the skin on the chicken, but, if you prefer, you could remove it before marinating and cooking it.

Basmati Rice Pilaf With Peas, Cumin and Turmeric 

Serve this golden-hued rice, flecked with bright green peas, with tandoori chicken and other Indian-style dishes. Any leftover rice could be frozen to thaw and reheat when needed.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: About 25 minutes

Makes: Six to eight servings

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1/2 tsp ground turmeric

1 3/4 cups long grain white basmati rice

• salt and white pepper to taste

2 3/4 cups chicken stock

1 cup frozen peas

Place the oil in a medium pot over medium to medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about two minutes. Mix in the cumin and turmeric and cook and stir one minute. Mix in the rice and cook and stir two minutes more. Add the stock and salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover the pot, turn the heat to its lowest setting, then cook and steam the rice 15 minutes, or until tender. Fluff the rice with a fork and mix in the peas. Cover rice and let the peas heat through a few minutes, then serve.

Cucumber Raita 

Dollop some of this cool and tangy, yogurt-based sauce alongside the tandoori chicken.

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: a few minutes

Makes: about 1 1/3 cups

1/2 tsp cumin seeds

2/3 cup grated English cucumber

3/4 to 1 cup thick plain yogurt

1 small garlic clove, minced

1 Tbsp lemon juice

2 to 3 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro or mint

Place the cumin seeds in a small skillet and set over medium-high heat. Heat and toast the cumin one to two minutes, or until very lightly toasted and aromatic. Place the cumin seeds in a medium bowl. With your hands, firmly squeeze out as much moisture from grated cucumber as you can. Add the cucumber to the cumin. Mix in the remaining ingredients. Cover and chill raita at least one hour, before serving. It can be made many hours before needed.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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