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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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    • profile image

      bhagyashree mahambre 

      7 years ago

      I m jus 15 n I lov cooking nice recipe sir n I suceeded in making it properly....the chicker remains very tender, juicy.....wth tat royal taste in it......thank u sir

    • susan maria profile image

      susan maria 

      8 years ago

      Wow its worth trying.. Wil try this out soon. Thank you for sharing this beautiful and easy recipe with us..

    • profile image

      krishna,dehradun..student of hotel Mangement of KIHM 

      9 years ago

      .I hav gone through the story ..very nice story being the student of hotel mangement i m thank ful to u all for providing such an important information

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      I grew up next door to Moti Mahal, The story is true, Nehru and Kennedy dined there. If this was a mugul recipi, the Moslems would have it , they never cooked it this way and the british would have known it. These people who opened that restaurent were unique and original. As a child I saw these dignitaries, and saw where they mashed up the spices-- It was Darya Ganj , Old Delhi

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Ever heard of food born illnesses? At least four hours at room temperature? Are you crazy? BTW I am a professional chef and have lived in India for eight years.

    • msannec profile image


      11 years ago from Mississippi (The Delta)

      Very interesting story. I just heard of tandoori chicken for the first time when I was in Atlanta last week, they served it at the hotel on the dinner buffet. It was delicious! They used lime and cilantro in theirs, and it was great. Thanks for sharing.

    • mc5247 profile image


      11 years ago from Kirkland

      This story is not true. Reference to this dish can be found in old books more than a century old. So it wasn't really discovered recently, but is actually an old dish originating in the mughal kitchens. However, references to this dish exploded in popular literature after 1950/60 or so. So there may be some truth to Nehru popularizing it, but I doubt it.

      Either way it is a great dish, perfect for party appetizers. Read on to learn how to do it well. There are many variations of this dish.

    • profile image


      12 years ago

      I heard this story recently on the show ' Matter of Taste with Vir Snaghvi' and was surprised. Always thought that the tandoori chicken was a very Indian thing introduced during the Mughal period. But it seems that this bird is as old as the free India.

    • Anna Evanswood profile image


      12 years ago from Malaysia

      Great information:)

    • marisuewrites profile image


      12 years ago from USA

      I was going to write a hub about my new love for tandoori bread.   I just discovered it, tho' ate something similar in New Mexico, also made from round clay ovens...but it was not as flat as the tandoori bread.

      I love the texture of this soft chewy bread.   I have to try the chicken   very interesting hub!!  =)) 

      Red pepper refers to cayenne? but the flakes sound great!!

    • profile image


      12 years ago

      Can someone knowledgeable please clarify the recipe's ingredient, "1-teaspoon Red Pepper," which conjures up too many types - cayenne, red pepper flakes, red pepper ala Korean or Suchuan or Mexican. Which is best for Tandoori? Thanks.

    • profile image


      13 years ago

      Thanks for the help, Will try it for sure.

    • Mr Nice profile image

      Mr Nice 

      13 years ago from North America

      Very interesting story and chicken looks very good in the tray might be very delicious.

    • profile image


      14 years ago

      I am going to try this one soon, and I don't even noramlly like tandoorie!

    • MM Del Rosario profile image

      MM Del Rosario 

      14 years ago from NSW, Australia

      the picture makes me like to cook one tonight. thanks for sharing your recipe.

    • Rmnathan profile image


      14 years ago from Sharjah

      The story is new to me. Thanks for the well written hub and the information.


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