How Indian Barbecue Goes Way Beyond Tandoori Chicken

Chef Chintan Pandya of Dhamaka shares a recipe for seekh lamb kebab.

Ironically enough, one of the most common forms of Indian barbecue—the tandoori chicken—is not intrinsically Indian afterall. The dish came along with Pakistani immigrant Kundan Lal Gujral, who ended up in India after the partition of 1947 and opened a restaurant in Delhi.

The red, masala-coated pieces of chicken cubes that are charred on embers are the predecessor of the even more famous butter chicken, and continue to be one of the most popular versions of barbecue food in India. But the art of Indian barbecue is multi-faceted and varies wildly depending on region.

Unlike the American-style of barbecue that uses grills for cooking the meat, for tandoori cooking, pre-marinated ingredients (mostly chili powder, yogurt, and oil) are lined on a skewer and inserted in a charcoal-heated clay oven. The word “tandoor” is the Turkish pronunciation of Persian and Arabic word “tannur,” which means an oven or a portable furnace.

“The founder of Sikhism—Guru Nanak—encouraged the concept of tandoor-led cooking, which led to its popularity in Northern India,” says Chef Amninder Sandhu, who founded an open-fire Indian kitchen called Ammu in Mumbai. “He urged people to build a common oven in the neighborhood to help get rid of casteism and to encourage them to mingle.” Sandhu traces the origin of this method of cooking to the earliest Indian civilization, in the Harappa Valley, over 4,000 years ago.

Thecha pomfret | Photo courtesy of Amninder Sandhu

Many barbecue dishes come from the northern or central states of India, such as Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh. Ingredients are typically barbecues in a tandoor or a sigdi, which is a method similar to African baraai or Brazilian churrasco where ingredients are cooked on a metal grill.

“We marinate the meat and veggies in a combination of green and black cardamom, cinnamon, clove, cumin powder, dried red chili, and coriander seeds. Then cook it on a bed of hot coal and meat drippings,” says James Beard Award-winning chef Chintan Pandya from Dhamaka.

Goat Belly Seekh at Dhamaka | Photo by Paul McDonough

Even further north, in the state of Kashmir, a very different kind of barbecue prevails. This method is called seekh, and seekh tujji is a common street food made in this style.

“Here, the technique is the same as the sigdi style of barbeque where meat is cooked on a grill,” says Vanika Chaudhary, chef-founder of Mumbai-based restaurant Noon. A Kashmiri herself, Chaudhary works with native ingredients and techniques in her restaurant. “The marinade authentically uses spices such as turmeric, ginger powder, and fennel.”

But what sets it apart from other Indian barbecues is the usage of the local Kashmiri chilies, which are pounded into the base. “Growing up, I saw my mother make this,” Chaudhary remembers. “She would marinate the meat overnight in these spices and cook them the next day. I would see her massaging the mutton for a long time. She would always add cow dung and twigs from our garden to set fire at the bottom of the sigdi along with the charcoal.”

Stuffed peppers at Dhamaka | Photo by Paul McDonough

These additions give the Kashmiri seekh a traditional flair. While the other forms of Indian barbeque are often served with condiments such as chili, mint, and coriander chutney, the Kashmiri barbeque is served with doon chetin, a walnut and yogurt chutney.

In the West of India, in Rajasthan, another style of barbecuing known as “soole” is common and it has its roots in Europe. “The origin of sword-cooking perhaps started with the Greek warriors and that’s how shish kebab came into being—with a major Turkish influence,” says TV chef Ranveer Brar. “In India, it is known as soole, and is believed to have originated among the Indian Rajput clan, a warrior community.”

The warriors hunted meat, skewered it on their swords and cooked them on live fire, along with pickles which they carried from their homes. Today, this wartime cooking technique is still prevalent in this region. While traditionally a simple marinade of chilies and pickle oil was used for game meat, today everything from fish to mutton is marinated in complex spices such as coriander powder, cumin powder, dry mango powder, and turmeric.

From a rustic way of cooking for the early Indians, to a nuanced method of grilling ingredients like tempeh, shiitake mushrooms, broccoli, and even cottage cheese using Indian spices and oils, barbecue has evolved over the years in India. But what has stayed intact are the core flavors notes and cooking techniques, which you can try to attempt at home.

Seekh Kebab Recipe by Chintan Pandya

• 5 pounds boneless lamb pieces 
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1½ tablespoons chilli powder
• ¼ teaspoon shahi jeera (royal cumin)
• ½ teaspoon green cardamom powder
• ¼ teaspoon mace powder
• 1½ tablespoons ginger paste
• 1½ tablespoons garlic paste
• 2 teaspoons green chilli paste
• 4 teaspoons garam masala
• 3½ ounces processed cheese
• 8 tablespoons green coriander leaves (finely chopped)
• 1 cup lamb fat

1. In a bowl, marinate the lamb with all the ingredients except the coriander, overnight.
2. Mince this mixture finely and add the herb. Season and keep aside.
3. Now take a handful of this mince and shape it into elongated kebabs and skewer them on grilling rods.
4. The mince will be sticky enough to spread well on the skewer. You can wet your palms slightly to facilitate this process. Spread each kebab around three inches or less.
5. Grill these rods for 20-25 minutes on a grill, live fire, or a tandoor until well done.
6. Push it out of the skewer and serve hot with mint-coriander chutney.

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Sonal Ved is a Thrillist contributor and the author of Tiffin: 500 Authentic Recipes Celebrating India’s Regional Cuisine. She is the content lead at India Food Network and Tastemade India, and the food editor at Vogue India.