Nothing evokes celebration like a shoulder of lamb with the signature flame-licked char and tandoori succulence and smokiness, so tender it falls off the bone... add a variety of seared kebabs and puffy, blistered nans and you truly have a feast! Such repasts evoke the Frontier romance of travel, derring do and Kiplingesque adventures in the Khyber. Also redolent of the legacy of undivided Punjab and its communal earth ovens, surely they invite contemplation of the heritage of Frontier flavours?
It was the passage to India through the labyrinthine mountainous passes of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) whence Peshawar was known as Purushpura since Classical times, navigated by the Persians, Greeks, Kushanas, Mauryas, Ghaznavids, Mughals and the Sikhs, which irrevocably marked the history of the subcontinent. Those unique civilisational dialogues - not always civilised! - endure in a much-savoured culinary tradition of slow cooking over radiant heat, more familiar to us as tandoori. It was on account of the necessities of a nomadic way of life in the high passes as well as the rugged natural surroundings that food came to be slow cooked in its own juices inside a charcoal-fired oven called tandoor, or slow roasted over an open fire. And once Kanishka opened up the continental Spice Route, meat started being subtly marinated in the very spices that fashioned the trading routes connecting the Mediterranean, Arabia, Egypt, Persia, China and India. The tandoori-seared magic was such that it moved poet Amir Khusrau to praise the lightness of the Naan-e-tanuk and pillowy puffines of the Naan-e-Tanuri at the court of the Delhi Sultanate!
It appears that the iconic tandoor originated in Persia and may have come to India via modern-day Afghanistan. The knowledge of such clay ovens could also have been indigenous to ancient India, for small mud plastered ovens with side doors have been found in the Indus Valley settlements. In fact, as early as the eighth century B.C., Indian surgeon Sushruta celebrated the delicacy of meat roasted on vertical skewers! The word ‘tandoor’ derives from the Persian ‘tannur’, which in turn derives from the Babylonian ‘tinuru’ with its Semitic origins in the word ‘nar’ meaning fire. Several adaptations of the tandoor are to be found in the Caucus region and around Central and South Asia: While the Punjabi tandoor is traditionally made of clay, the Afghan tandoor is made of bricks and the Armenian clay tonir is underground. Turks have the ‘tandur’, Uzbeks the ‘tandyr’, Azerbaijanis the ‘tandir and Georgians the ‘tone’. Mughal emperor Jahangir is credited with making portable tandoors for, on his, campaigns, cooks whipped up feasts of tandoori chooza and lamb accompanied by nans.
I think the irresistible charm of the tandoor also has a lot to do with its established tradition of community, for the early tandoors were communal ovens to cook flatbreads in and, in the Punjab, underpinned an entire culture of community kitchens (sanjha chulha).
To relive such camaraderie around succulent tandoori fare, gather your friends and family and head to ITC Grand Chola in Chennai on any given Saturday this month, where chilled beer and Chef-curated kebabs at the Chef’s Signature Combo festival evoke signature North-West Frontier essence. In Hyderabad, find your dining experience elevated with the seven tandoor delicacies specially crafted by ITC Master Chefs for the Tantalising Tandoor festival at ITC Kakatiya that continues through August.