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Tandoori Chicken Recipe and History

Updated on September 30, 2007
Tandoori chicken prepared for a potluck
Tandoori chicken prepared for a potluck

Like most great recipes, Tandoori Chicken has an interesting story. It starts in the 1920s with a man named Kundan Lal Gujral who opened a restaurant called Moti Mahal in Peshawer during the time when India was united under British rule. Experimenting with new and interesting food preparations, Gujral decided to try cooking chicken in the tandoors--clay ovens--used by local villagers to cook bread. The earthenware ovens were bell-shaped and set into the earth and fired with wood or charcoal. They could reach temperatures of about 900 degrees. Using young chickens, Gujral was able to cook them in the high-heat ovens so that the inside was just done and the outside crisped. The result would make him famous.

In 1947, the Punjab province of British India was partitioned with the Eastern portion joining Pakistan and Western India. Peshawer, with its Muslem majority, became part of Pakistan. Gujral found himself one among many Sikh and Hindu refugees fleeing the rioting and upheaval by heading West to India. He moved his restaurant to Daryaganj, Delhi. As chance would have it, the move into the newly independent India would make Gujral's chicken an international phenomenon.

The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, happened to eat at Moti Mahal and was so impressed by the crispy, tender dish that he made a point of planning many state banquets there. Foreign dignitaries that enjoyed Tandoori Chicken included American Presidents Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, Soviet leaders Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, the King of Nepal, and the Shah of Iran. The relationship between the restaurant and the leaders of India lasted through several generations of Prime Ministers. The result of the fame is obvious-Tandoori Chicken and its derivative, Butter Chicken, are standards on Indian menus the world over. Chicken Tikka Masala--a dish immensely popular in Britain and America--is also based largely on these dishes. For better or worse, Gujral's son has launched Moti Mahal into an international chain.

The popularity of cooking in a tandoor has led to many home chefs building their own (the internet has several accounts of how this is done), but you don't need to build a clay oven to still get great tasting Tandoori Chicken-your charcoal grill will work just fine. The key is a very hot, dry fire. The chicken must cook just until the center is warm enough and the outside should crisp and seal in the juice.

My husband Morgan's recipe for a party-sized batch of Tandoori Chicken follows. He says of it:

"My experience with Tandoori Chicken was severely limited up until about a year ago with the opening of a new Indian restaurant (Mela) in downtown Asheville. Before Mela showed me how correctly prepared Tandoori Chicken should taste, the dish meant an artificially colored collection of desiccated dark meat pieces served on a pile of onions on a buffet line. Now I know the true joy of this dish--incredibly tender, juicy chicken with a crisp smokiness and the exotic flavors of toasted cumin and coriander, garlic and ginger. My first experience cooking it at home was incredible--and the best part was knowing that I still had plenty of room to improve!"

Tandoori Chicken Recipe

serves a crowd


  • 3 Small Chickens (under 2lbs.), quartered and skinned and wings discarded

  • 1/3 Cup Lemon Juice

For the Sauce:

  • 4 large garlic cloves
  • 2 tablespoon fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped
  • 2 tablespoon paprika
  • 2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper


  • 1/3 cup ghee (or oil) for basting

Preparation Instructions:

1. Rub the chicken with the lemon juice and allow it to sit, refrigerated, for 1/2 hour.

2. While the chicken is sitting, combine all the marinade ingredients into a blender or food processor and blend them until they form a fine paste.

3. Rub the chicken with the marinade and allow it to sit, covered at room temperature, for at least four hours.

4. Prepare a charcoal grill with plenty of charcoal so that the coals are glowing and very hot. Make sure that you have a fire that is substantial enough to maintain a consistent temperature for up to 30 minutes. Set the grill racks 2-3 inches from the coals.

5. Place the chicken onto the grill racks and allow it to cook covered for 20 minutes on the first side. Baste the chicken often. Turn it and allow it to cook for about ten minutes on the second side or until it is done. Note that these times are suggestions--actual cooking time will depend on the grill temperature.

6. When the chicken is done, serve immediately on a bed of seasoned Basmati rice.


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