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The tandoor trap

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Published 3/19/2008

Indian cuisine, with its complex blends of seasonings — masalas — has grown in popularity in this country. But those squeamish about curries may not realize that all the dishes of India have different flavors, depending on the mix of spices and use of ginger, garlic, onions and chilies. Indian tandoori cooking is similar to what we know as barbecue, making it a good way to introduce Americans to the foods of India. Jaya Lal Sharma is the tandoori master at Bombay Grille in Farmington Hills. If you sit at a table near his open cooking area, you can watch him as he prepares succulent meals with seeming ease.

Metro Times: How does one learn to become a tandoori chef?

Jaya Lal Sharma: I worked for nine years with an executive chef. There are also schools where you can learn to be a chef of all foods or only study tandoori cooking.

MT: Is it a skill that you can learn quickly?

Sharma: At least two years, but usually longer.

MT: Did you learn to cook in India?

Sharma: Oh, yes. Also I was a schoolteacher for eight years. Then I came here and became a waiter for four years and then I went into the kitchen to cook.

MT: I've heard of the designation "Tandoori Master." How does one achieve that status?

Sharma: There is no test. You cannot have complaints against you and you must have a good reputation.

MT: In India, do people have tandoors at home?

Sharma: They are expensive. Mostly rich people have them. Here too, some people have them at their house, the Americans. The marination is very important. If you make that right, you can cook in the oven at home on very high heat. The charcoal in the tandoor does give a little more flavor. You can do it on your grill too.

MT: Is it practical to have a tandoor here? Can they be used outdoors or will they crack from the temperature changes?

Sharma: It doesn't matter if you keep it outside. The only important thing to know is that the steel base can become rusty, but the clay will be OK.

MT: What temperature do they reach?

Sharma: About 450 degrees or more.

MT: How is bread such as naan cooked? I believe it is done on the inside wall of the oven. What prevents it from falling? How can you remove it without burning yourself?

Sharma: Naan is cooked on the wall of the oven (tandoor). It sticks to the clay. You must remove it fast. At first I was burned, but you learn to do it fast.

MT: What is the difference between naan and pita? Is the dough used for naan the same as the dough used to make pita?

Sharma: In our recipe we use milk and yogurt too. Some people use yeast, but we do not. We use baking powder.

MT: How can I cook naan at home? On the grill?

Sharma: You need high heat and a flat surface like a tile or stone. In an oven is best, because the bread is surrounded by heat.

MT: How does kulcha differ from naan?

Sharma: The dough is the same. Kulcha is stuffed. Naan is plain. You can put anything in, like potatoes, however you want. You can put onions and cilantro, eggplant or mushrooms, lamb, anything.

MT: I'll tell you what I like for lunch is a tandoori chicken sandwich on naan with raita.

Sharma: I like it with some lettuce and ranch dressing.

MT: Are the marinades important to the cooking process or are they only for flavor? I heard that yogurt tenderizes the meat.

Sharma: Both.

MT: How long can meat be marinated?

Sharma: Usually from 24 to 48 hours. Longer than that, the meat becomes salty and sometimes mushy. Not good.

MT: When you serve tandoori chicken on a sizzling platter with onions and peppers, are they somehow cooked in the tandoor?

Sharma: No. They are just caramelized in a skillet in ghee, Indian clarified butter. People like that so much that they sometimes ask for extra.

MT: Are the marinades the same for different meats, like lamb or chicken or seafood?

Sharma: All different. Tandoori chicken is different from chicken tikka. That is what you must learn to become a tandoori chef.

MT: Are there secrets for tandoor cooking that you can give us?

Sharma: There aren't really secrets. All I try to do is to be consistent — the same every time.

Bombay Grille is located at 29200 Orchard Lake Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-626-2982; bombay-grille.com.

Jeff Broder does this monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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