India is a diverse region with a tremendous tradition of food. With its abundant variety of spices and location on the east-west trade routes, India has had a great many influences and products from which to develop its cooking tradition, and grilling and barbecue have been at the center of it.
Until the influx of European and American cooking equipment most all Indian food was prepared over charcoal ovens called Chulas. A Chula is a brick cube with a hole in the front to feed the fire and holes on the top to act as burners. Chula construction is quite the art form, requiring careful plastering to provide the right draft to give a hot and even source of heat. Traditionally the brickwork was done by a manservant or a bricklayer, but the plastering and preparing of the oven were done by women because it was considered an art form requiring great skill. A Chula gives the cook the option of using a pan or cooking directly over the flame. Because of the round shape of the holes in the top and generally a lack of a cooking grate, kebabs are a particular favorite of Indian cooks. All manner of meats and vegetables are prepared in this way. But don’t be fooled. Barbecue is a popular item as well.
Typically we think of Barbecue as an American invention. The word itself is derived from a Native American word. Indian Barbecue is cooked in a Tandoor. A Tandoor is a large pot like you would see in some Arabian Nights movie. Typically it is buried in the ground up to its neck. Hot coals are added to the bottom of the Tandoor. Being ceramic the Tandoor holds in the heat and focuses it on the food cooked inside not unlike the popular ceramic cookers that have popped up in recent years.
Probably the most famous recipe from the Tandoor is Tandoori chicken. The skinned whole chicken is rubbed with salt and lime (or lemon) and marinated for at least six hours in a mixture of yogurt and a masala. Masala is kind of the Indian equivalent of a spice rub (wet or dry). Typically it is made of ginger, garlic, chilies, and saffron (for color). After the chickens have marinated they are placed on long thick iron skewers and placed inside the Tandoor to cook. Because of the Tandoor’s intense and even heat, it only takes about 20 minutes for the chickens to cook. Few things receive more praise than chicken cooked in an old and well-used Tandoor. The Tandoor itself is a vital ingredient to the recipe because it imparts a mellow smoke flavor to the chicken.
When cooking Indian food, remember that India is a primary producer and consumer of a tremendous variety of spices. Indian food incorporates a very wide diversity of spices in all its food. Many of these spices are mixed together to form the mainstays of the Indian diet. Things like garam masala (typically: cinnamon, cardamom pods, cloves, black peppercorns and cumin seeds) and curry powder(fenugreek, mustard, poppy seeds, cloves, cardamom pods, red chilies, black peppercorns, ginger, cumin, coriander, and turmeric). Also important are yogurt, dhal (lentils and split peas) and coconut milk.
On a final note, if you look through an Indian Cookbook, you will find plenty of recipes for poultry and lamb. The reason for this is that Hindus (the predominant religion) do not eat beef or pork and Muslims do not eat pork. You can find recipes for things like curry pork or Tandoori beef, but these are usually variations derived from India’s influence in other parts of the world. We know a local Japanese restaurant that makes an excellent curry pork, but it is definitely of a Japanese persuasion.