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Cheating with tandoori chicken

"To be truly authentic it should, of course, be cooked in an earthen oven called a tandoor" Charmaine Solomon

I chose those particular words from Charmaine Solomon because of course, unless you are either filthy rich, eccentric or mad keen on tandoori chicken, or a restaurateur you are not going to have a tandoori oven and therefore you cannot cook an authentic tandoori chicken. I'm pretty sure the guy shown above does, and that the bread he is holding on his tray and the chicken being brandished in front of the camera is also 'authentic'. I don't know for sure, but I'm also guessing that we are authentically in India. And did you know? They have found tandoori ovens that date back as far as 2600 BC - when they were building pyramids in Egypt. Is tandoori chicken that old, or were they only cooking bread?

Next stage down in authenticity is the Indian restaurant - not in India, but cooked in a tandoori oven. And below are two tandoori items from our own particular Melbourne favourite - Haveli Heritage in Nunawading. They used to be closer in Doncaster East, but alas have moved to far flung Nunawading. Anyway - below their chicken and their salmon - and you know I think the salmon is even better than the chicken - succulent as well as being supremely tasty.

Actually it's no less authentic than a version made in a restaurant or on the street in India. And almost as visually pleasing because you can always watch the guy cooking it behind the glass. Our kids and grandkids used to love doing this. Just like I used to watch the man in the Lyons café making omelettes. Such a simple thing, an ordinary everyday thing. Ordinary is different around the world of course. Tandoori is exotic to us. Maybe a French style omelette is exotic to an Indian. And ordinary becomes a show when you are watching somebody do it - even your mum. Hence the increasing number of 'open' kitchens, even in very, very posh restaurants - although they probably cheat and have another one out the back where all the less seemly stuff goes on. But we all love a show and tandoori makes a particularly attractive show.

So no we can't make an authentic tandoori chicken because we don't have the oven. The closest we can come to it is a barbecue, although in our house we tend to prefer cooking it in the oven. That way you end up with some sauce from the marinade, in which to dip your bread, although, authentically, there is no sauce. I make sure there is a surplus of the marinade, and therefore a surplus of the sauce, which probably ruins the basic nature of the dish, but that's how we like it.

The recipe we use in this house is from Charmaine Solomon who says: "Everyone has a slightly different recipe for tandoori chicken." No surprises there, I suspect that there is not a single dish anywhere in the world that has a recipe set in concrete as it were - and if there is - I think the Italians have various legislated authentic recipes - that really doesn't stop people experimenting. It merely stops them selling their version as the real thing, even if their version is better. But then better is a subjective thing anyway.

For example, I think my daughter-in-law has taken the Charmaine Solomon version and made it into more of a casserole, possibly subconsciously making it into a butter chicken which, as one story goes, was an invention of a Glaswegian who threw some leftover tandoori chicken into some tinned tomato soup. Tandoori chicken bastardised to the extreme some would say.

But I'm straying a little from my original plan for this post.

Tonight I am going to cook the tandoori chicken that we always have using Charmaine Solomon's recipe - the cheating version of her recipe from her book Indian Cooking for Pleasure. For her recipe does actually have a slightly more authentic version in which you make the spice mixture on the spot as it were. And that spice mixture is rather less spicy than her cheat - which I shall come to.

(Brief aside here. As I was looking for a picture of said book - found on Amazon - I found that a new copy will set you back $652 and a used version from $149!!! - plus delivery). It's a slim book and actually I think it's more or less the Indian section taken from her much larger The Complete Asian Cookbook. So think carefully before you start throwing out your old cookbooks.

I am cooking this dish - an old family favourite - one of the few things my young teenage sons would eat and which I included in my top ten cookbook that I made for them when they left home - because it's my guru week and this week it's Charmaine Solomon and this book. I pondered on the Masaladar Machchi which I mentioned yesterday? - fried fish finished off in a curry sauce, and I also pondered on Sultanpuri Pilau - which was a lamb pilaff, but today, feeling lazier and, a tiny bit yearning for comfort food I decided to fall back on my old favourite Tandoori chicken (Tandoori Murgh) and use the opportunity to talk about cheating when cooking 'classic' dishes. And another plus - I could also clear the freezer of a packet of chapatis that I made.

There are degrees of cheating. In descending order of effort (not necessarily cost) - No. 1 - you can get a takeaway from your nearest Indian restaurant. No. 2 (a) - you can actually go to said restaurant, or (b) you can go to the best Indian restaurant in town - also a subjective choice made by some critic or group of critics. The Age Good Food Guide for example has four with lots of hats - the equivalent of Michelin stars - Atta, Elchi, Tonka and Enter Via Laundry (the one with most hats.) I suspect these are all haute cuisine restaurants though and don't really do tandoori chicken. Tandoori chicken is not fancy enough. Or (c) go to an Indian restaurant you haven't been to before. Variety is the spice of life after all.

Ignoring that ultimate cheat - somebody else does it for you - and looking at cheats for those who really don't want to fuss much at all and mostly don't mind what they pay, for option no. 3 I looked at what the supermarkets offered. I actually thought there would be more to choose from than there is. I half expected some frozen offerings, and/or some marinaded versions, but no, the nearest I found was Coles Perform Tandoori Chicken - which I suspect is something you would microwave. Woolworths has nothing. It will cost you $9.00 for a 330g serving - one serving? A takeaway of half a chicken from Machan, one of our local Indian restaurants will set you back $12.00 - but that might serve two people. It's hard to know what Aldi has.

Option number four and still in the supermarket - and also online - buy a curry paste or spice mix. There are a few on offer, although not as many as I thought I have to say and the prices ranged from a jar of Patak's simmer sauce at $5.00 or paste at $6.00 to Mudgeeraba Spices Tandoori Chicken Masala in Woolworths for $25.00 for 240g! There are various gourmet offerings online, including from Charmaine Solomon herself and mostly pretty expensive.

Finally - make your own spice mix or paste. Which is what I do. I have a jar on my shelf of Charmaine Solomon's Tandoori mix. It takes no time at all if you have some garam masala around. Just mix together: 2 teaspoons turmeric; 1 teaspoon paprika; 1/2 teaspoon chilli powder (optional) - these days, most people suggest Kashmiri chilli powder, which you can get in some Coles supermarkets - those in an area with a goodly proportion of Indian immigrants; 1 teaspoon garam masala; 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom; 1/8 teaspoon powdered saffron (optional) 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder. I usually make double the amount so that I have it to hand when the urge grabs me.

To make your chicken for - she suggests 2 spring chickens about 500g each - I use chicken breasts and legs: Mix together 3 teaspoons of your tandoori mix with 3/4 cup yoghurt, 11/2 teaspoons salt (which I tend to leave out); 11/2 teaspoons crushed garlic and 11/2 teaspoons crushed garlic and marinade your chicken for at least 2 hours. Cook at 200ºC until done - it depends on how big your pieces of chicken are. Oh and you are supposed to oil the tray and pour some oil over the top - she says to use ghee but I use olive oil. I also mix in some chopped mint or coriander. It's so, so tasty. Lots of people seemed to squeeze some lemon over at various points in the process. Whole chickens are a mere $4.00 a kilo these days, - you don't have to lash out on breasts. You do have to skin the bird though.

Below is somebody's version of her recipe, Food and Wine had a recipe from Madhur Jaffrey and then there's Jamie Oliver who, it seems to me, has a recipe for almost everythin and Ottolenghi had a go too. And you will find that they are all different.

Mine never looks very red, as it does in restaurants, but that's because they add red colouring to make it look red. Even in posh restaurants, and in India. Paprika helps, but that adds a touch of its own flavour as well of course. Tonight, in honour of my new resolution to eat more vegetable sides I'm going to put some pieces of cauliflower in with the chicken I think. Should go well. The Indians seem to like cauliflower.

And what to do with the leftovers - if you have any that is? Well - sandwiches, Butter chicken and Chicken tikka masala. I even made a quiche with some once, and it was surprisingly OK; salads, pies and pasties ... McCains have produced a frozen Tandoori chicken pizza. I wonder if they buy up leftovers from Indian restaurants? Of course they don't.

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