Some years ago, I went on a diet. I decided to avoid grains: all starchy and sugary items. I managed to stave off the temptations of roshogolla, payesh, ice creams. Giving up on my comfort food, dal and rice, called for some strength of character. But my willpower crumbled before the longing for rotis and parathas. I craved for the hot, slightly burnt roti and the soft fluffy naan, straight out of the tandoor.
Perhaps, my yearning had something to do with nostalgia. I remember making a dash for the clay oven in a neighbourhood corner with a box of aata dough in hand and watching the woman operating the tandoor shape the gooey dough into round cakes which she slapped on to the device’s sloped inner walls, where they would puff and blister. The warm roti would be drawn out with long tongs and I would hand her a rupee or two. That was on days when my folks felt a little lazy. Or, as my mother would say, “a mutton curry is best had with a tandoori roti, soft enough to absorb the flavours of the meat dish, yet crusty to leave a mild imprint of charcoal on your palate.”
I have vivid memories of the waist-high clay ovens that dotted parts of my largely-Punjabi neighbourhood. One section of which, with a distinctly working-class character — where I would be sent to get my parent’s clothes ironed — had a hole-in-the-wall eatery, where men would lounge on charpoys and break bread. The tandoor was, in some ways, a great leveller. They were times when memories of Partition lingered. It reminded people of the times when rotis were made in the common village oven — though the main meal was cooked at home — a tradition of sharing, as the name sanjha chulha (shared hearth) suggests. It is said that Guru Nanak encouraged sanjha chulhas to remove caste barriers.
Clay ovens, though, date back to several centuries, as food historians note. KT Achaya writes of “small mud-plastered ovens with a side opening…often resembling the present-day tandoors at the Indus Valley site of Kalibangan.” Colleen Taylor Sen writes, “A collection of Mesopotamian recipes from 1600 BC indicates that unleavened dough made from flour and water was rolled out and then stuck at the very hot surface of the clay oven with an opening in the bottom to add fuel and let in air, just like in modern Indian tandoors.”
Other accounts hold that the cooking style, in which burnt charcoal left its mark on the combination of flavours, was introduced to the Indian subcontinent by the Mughals. Today tandoori chicken and roti are staples of most restaurants. But, writes Taylor Sen, “until the mid-20th century, they were virtually unknown.” She credits Kundan Lal Gujral, the founder of Delhi’s iconic Moti Mahal restaurant, for popularising the tandoori style.
These days, at most eateries — even those on roadsides — clay ovens have acquired a metal exterior. But, in spite of its apparent simplicity, cooking in a tandoor is a matter of sophistication. There is no way to gauge the temperature. So how does one know that the naan has acquired the right softness, or the chicken has become delicately tender? “That comes with practice,” a chef, at an eatery I frequent, tells me.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Heart in the hearth’