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Tandoori Chicken on the Grill

Make this simple, savory Indian restaurant treat at home with a yogurt-lime marinade and a red-hot grill

by Leona Dalavai

from Fine Cooking
Issue 21

My parents are Indian immigrants, and lucky for me, they passed down their heritage through food. When they threw parties, dozens of rice and curry dishes covered the table. But what the guests always reached for first was tandoori chicken -- smoke-kissed and tangy, moist and tender.

I think the reason tandoori was so popular at our family feasts was that few people knew how to make it at home. Tandoori chicken was developed in India, where game hens are cooked in a tandoor, a pit-like red clay oven that can get as hot as 900°F. In America, the only place you'll see a tandoor is at an Indian restaurant. But my dad developed an easy way to make tandoori chicken on our backyard grill, with results that were just as tender and delicious.

The method is simple: soak chicken pieces in a yogurt-based marinade and cook them on the grill, which almost replicates the intense heat of a tandoor.

A yogurt-lime marinade gives tender, moist chicken

The acidic yogurt in the marinade helps to tenderize the chicken. Yogurt's thickness also helps the tandoori spices cling to the chicken and flavor the meat.

Lime juice adds a distinctive tang, and limes are high in citric acid, also a tenderizer. Choose darker limes; they're more acidic. You can substitute lemon in a pinch, but it's less acidic and doesn't have the same deep flavor.

The tandoori chicken you've seen in Indian restaurants is a distinctive red-orange, which comes from flavorless food coloring in the marinade -- a reference to the dish's tandoor-pit birthplace. I sometimes add red food coloring for the same effect; you can buy special tandoori coloring at Indian groceries. Omitting the food coloring won't affect the flavor.

Use meaty breasts and thighs

You can use chicken breasts or thighs, bone-in or boneless. I prefer boneless because they lie flat against the grill and are easier to eat. Remove the skin to let the marinade soak in. Trim the chicken of most of its fat if you want, but do leave a little: it's vital for moistness and flavor.

  • fca21da45-02_med.jpg
    Grilling over red-hot coals is the best way to replicate the intense heat of a tandoor pit. Start testing for doneness after the minimum cooking time and pull the chicken off the grill as soon as it feels firm.
  • fca21da45-03_med.jpg
    Tandoori chicken is succulent, not spicy. Its full flavors come from a yogurt-lime marinade with traditional aromatic spices.
Tandoori needs even heat

Grilling tandoori isn't hard, but there are some essentials for moist, juicy chicken.

Layer the coals evenly to get even, high heat. Close the grill lid to keep in the heat and smoke. Be careful not to overcook the chicken. With no skin protecting it, it's more prone to drying out.

Let the chicken rest briefly before serving to make it juicier. A rest also allows the meat to absorb the flavors of the limes, onions, and cilantro.

Photos: Mark Thomas

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