It doesn't get much better than tandoori when ordering tasty Indian food. It's succulent, juicy, and packed full of flavour. It's a great choice as a starter or even as a main course. But is a tandoori spicy?
Today I'm going to tell you everything you need to know about tandoori, including its level of spiciness, how it's generally prepared and even some top tips on choosing the best tandoori dish.
In general, tandoori is not spicy. It doesn't feature many hot ingredients like chilli or cayenne, so, therefore, it could be described as a relatively mild dish. Occasionally restaurants use Kashmiri chilli powder to produce that vibrant red colour. But, tandoori is no hotter than 3/10.
What is Tandoori?
Tandoori is an Indian dish made by marinating pieces of meat in a yoghurt and spice sauce before grilling it in a specialised type of oven called a tandoor. Due to this cooking method and the variety of spices used, tandoori is packed with flavour.
There are several spices used in a tandoori marinade. Let's go through what you'll find in a typical tandoori marinade and why it is used: -
Yoghurt is actually a mild acid. If you've ever had buttermilk fried chicken, you'll know that it is really tender and juicy. Yoghurt in a tandoori marinade has a similar effect.
As a mild acid, it breaks down the proteins in the meat ever so slightly, ensuring that it stays succulent and juicy during the cooking process. It also acts as a good vehicle to carry the rest of the spices.
Speaking of which…
Ginger and Garlic
Ginger and garlic are some of the cornerstones of Indian cuisine and feature heavily in many Indian dishes.
Tandoori food is no exception.
Ginger and garlic paste makes the meat taste really aromatic. Because tandoori food is marinated, it soaks all the way through.
What many people associate with a 'curry' taste is actually cumin. This spice is also sometimes referred to as jeera. It is made by pulverising toasted seeds into a fine powder.
Cumin has a subtle sweetness and a little bit of a smoky note. As cooking in a tandoor is quite similar to barbecuing, this complements the existing flavours created in the cooking process.
Now, this can vary.
Some places use turmeric, some don't. You'll find tandoori differs from place to place and normally comes in one of two colours.
Either red or yellow.
If your tandoori food has a yellowish colour, there is a good chance that turmeric has been used.
Turmeric is a really mild spice. It adds a hint of Indian flavour to food without being overpowering.
Remember how we just talked about some tandoori dishes being red? This could be the reason.
Occasionally restaurants will use Kashmiri chilli powder to make the red colour. Still, it is more often the case that a few drops of red food colouring do the job just as well. In fact red food colouring is used in loads of Indian dishes.
Lemon juice serves two purposes in a tandoori marinade.
First, it is added for flavour. A little sharp lemon works really well to accentuate the flavours of tandoori and works well as an enhancer to the other spices.
Second, just like with yoghurt, lemon juice is an acid. Again this will help to tenderise the meat, especially if it is marinated for a few hours.
Coriander normally features in tandoori in more than one form.
It is included as part of the marinade as a powder. And it also can be added as freshly chopped leaves both in the marinade and as a garnish.
Powdered coriander is really mild and has a light citrusy taste. The leaves add a hint of floral freshness to the dish.
While the above is a great guide, each restaurant has its own custom version of what they would consider 'tandoori' marinade. They use different proportions of ingredients to produce a unique taste.
Most chefs I've ever asked for their tandoori recipe will flat out refuse to share it!
How is Tandoori Cooked?
For tandoori to be truly authentic, it must be cooked in a tandoor. A tandoor is a cylindrical clay oven that is traditionally heated with coal in the bottom. The food is skewered and placed vertically in the oven with the skewer handles sticking out. A tandoor oven grills, roasts, and smokes the food simultaneously.
As the meat begins to cook, the juices begin to drip out, where they contact the walls and base of the tandoor, creating smoke that flavours the meat.
Unlike plain old roasting, which can take a while and leave food (especially chicken) dry, tandoori cooking occurs really quickly. Because the meat is seared by the tandoor's hot temperature, this helps to seal in the juices, making it super tasty! When combined with those smoky flavours, it is a really tasty dish.
Want to see someone cooking a whole chicken in a tandoor?
Check this video out. It gives you a really good idea about what cooking in a tandoor looks like
How is Tandoori Usually Served?
Tandoori could definitely be described as a light dish.
It is normal for Indian restaurants to serve it with a small side salad and perhaps a nice thick wedge of lemon.
It is also normal for tandoori to be served with a mint and yoghurt dip, called raita.
But occasionally, you might get a surprise…
Some restaurants will serve tandoori dishes on a sizzling platter. This is a cast-iron dish that is heated until it is red hot. The meat is then placed in this dish, where it is delivered to your table, still sputtering and smoking away. Side salad doesn't fare well in a sizzling platter, and in this case, you can expect your tandoori food to be served with a simple side of sizzling chopped onions.
Mind your fingers, and enjoy the smell of tandoori infusing your shirt for the rest of the evening.
Is Tandoori a Flavor?
While tandoori does have a specific taste, it is not, in fact, a flavour. Tandoori is a style of cooking. Think of it a little like this. Barbecuing is a cooking style, but everyone is familiar with barbecue taste.
It is a similar story with tandoori food.
It is possible to create tandoori spice mixes designed to replicate the taste of traditionally cooked tandoori food, but these will generally have many elements similar to the ingredients that I described above.
Which Tandoori Meat is the Tastiest?
When it comes to ordering tandoori, you'll generally get three choices. Chicken, Lamb, and a meat called Reshmi or Keema (used interchangeably).
Tandoori chicken is the most famous on the above list. Chicken can be a little dry unless it is given some love, and tandoori cooking is the perfect way to do it. It holds flavour well, and because tandoori food is cooked relatively quickly, it retains its juiciness.
Grilled tandoori chicken is the food of the Gods.
Lamb is also a great choice if you'd like to try tandoori.
What makes it so special?
Lamb has a relatively high-fat content, which means that it drips plenty when in the tandoor, infusing the meat with all that delicious smoky flavour.
What's more, there is nothing wrong with serving lamb medium. So don't worry if it is pink in the middle.
As a result of the above two factors, tandoori lamb is juicy, tender and full of rich flavour.
Keema or reshmi kebabs are also cooked in a tandoor. Keema is a mixture of spicy minced meat (usually lamb or beef) combined with the spices I've mentioned above before being rolled into a sausage and skewered from the end. It is then flash grilled in the tandoor.
Keema kebabs might not look that eye-catching, but they are often the understated winners when it comes to the tastiest tandoori meat.
Oh, and keep an eye on the menu terminology. Keema, reshmi (and occasionally seekh) kebabs are all pretty much the same, just with a different name.
How Does Tandoori Taste Like? Is Tandoori Spicy?
Oh, my friends. If you haven't had tandoori before, you are in for such a treat.
Tandoori tastes like a fusion between barbecued food and Indian cuisine all rolled into one! And don't worry, it isn't spicy. There may be a hint of warmth, but I'd rate it as a 3/10 maximum.
Tandoori food is full of strong Indian spices, and because it will have been marinated for a long time, it is packed full of flavour. However, it doesn't feature too much chilli. It isn't famous for being one of the 'hot ones', so it is an excellent choice if you want something relatively mild.
Expect strong hints of garlic and cumin to come to the fore. It can also taste just a little bit sharp due to the inclusion of lemon juice in the recipe.
Generally, tandoori is not a saucy dish. Still, you can often order curry sauces that feature meat cooked in a tandoor… Like the world-famous chicken tikka masala.
What is Special About Tandoori?
The thing that makes tandoori food stand out is how it is cooked.
The clue is in the name.
Tandoori food, to be authentic, must be cooked in a tandoor.
You will occasionally see places grill their 'tandoori' food over hot coals or lava rocks. Still, in truth, this is actually barbecuing. The taste is similar, but with enough experience, you'll be able to tell the difference.
Tandoori Vs Tikka. What's the Difference?
One of my readers recently informed me that there is a difference between tikka and tandoori. It is easy to get confused as chicken tikka can often be cooked in a tandoor. So, what's the difference?
Tikka doesn't reference a cooking style, whereas tandoori does. The word tikka means 'chunks' or 'small pieces' and refers to how the meat is presented. On the other hand, Tandoori is the name given to food cooked only in a tandoor.
Could you have chicken tikka not cooked in a tandoor? Yes, absolutely.
Could you have tandoori lamb cooked in an oven? Well, not really. It wouldn't be an authentic tandoori dish.
Who Would Enjoy a Tandoori?
Tandoori is a really tasty Indian dish that I'd recommend to anyone. However, it has a few key qualities that you may want to look out for: -
Tandoori is Mild
For people who don't like spice, tandoori is the perfect dish. It is really mild, without being 'boring'. If you are trying to avoid eating spicy Indian, then tandoori is your dish.
Tandoori is a (relatively) Dry Dish
Not a huge fan of heaps of sauce (what's wrong with you)? In this case, tandoori will be ideal. Because it is cooked on a skewer, it isn't what I'd describe as 'saucy'. It is literally chunks of meat grilled to perfection and simply served.
Tandoori is Normally an Appetiser
Tandoori is normally served as an entrée or appetiser (or 'starter' if, like me, you aren't posh). As a result, the portion sizes tend to be small.
If you are looking for a tasty Indian dish that isn't too overwhelming, then tandoori is good.
Tandoori Food is Pretty Healthy
Watching the waistline, but still want Indian food? My friends, tandoori is the answer. Not only will you be being served a dish that is pretty much pure protein, but because it is cooked in a tandoor, it will have less fat too.
Do you know what less fat means?
Making tandoori one of the healthiest Indian dishes around. You can read more about healthy Indian food right here.
Tandoori has Bold Flavours
Just because you don't like spicy food doesn't mean that your dish must be bland. Tandoori is packed full of Indian flavours without giving you all of the negative effects of Indian food… Onions, in particular, can have 'interesting' effects.
Can I Make Tandoori at Home?
Yes, you can make tandoori at home. There are two ways you might want to approach this.
The first is to create a lovely tandoori style marinade. The next time you have a barbecue that will get you pretty close.
But didn't I just say that wasn't authentic?
There is another way.
It is possible to make a mini tandoor oven at home. Check out my 'how to guide' here, and for the price of a couple of takeaways, you can have an authentic mini tandoor oven in your garden!
Is a Tandoori Spicy? Final Thoughts…
Generally, tandoori food is not what most people consider 'spicy'. Flavourful and packed full of Indian style ingredients? Most definitely. Hot? Not really. Tandoori doesn't really feature much chilli and, as a result, isn't going to have anybody sweating. Which is your favourite? Tandoori Chicken or Tandoori Lamb? Let me know in the comments below!