My first experience with top-level Indian cooking came early last year. I had realised that, having consistently enjoyed cooking meats and breads in various different ovens (wood-fired or otherwise) during my endless stage odyssey, being able to tackle a tandoor was missing from my slowly growing repertoire of skills.
A gaping maw boasting around 500°C of versatile heat and flame, with spears of roasting meats and bubbling breads aplenty – wouldn’t it just be brilliant to know how to control them? So, to start with, I went to see Santosh Shah, former head chef of Vivek Singh’s Cinnamon Kitchen, at Baluchi in London Bridge, which has a unique naan tasting menu, to show me the basics of preparing breads for the tandoor.
It’s a pretty unusual hand technique for flattening naan dough. Lots of pushing and splaying of fingers through the uncooked naan – one side buttered, the other floured – while keeping a dead straight arm, spinning the dough around with your little finger as you go. Then you need to slap the dough between your hands, over and over, to stretch it out. All of which I attempted, awkwardly.
Santosh and his team gave me lots of encouragement, in between chuckling, as I churned out misshapen and often split naans. It was a great introduction, but I needed more practice. So, a few months later, I went to see Peter Joseph at his restaurant, Kahani in Chelsea, to have another crack and to take my first steps in actually cooking in a tandoor.
Peter had me shadow his tandoor chef for the evening and, together, we spread and slapped dough to order before sticking them to the inside of the tandoor with a naan pillow. This meant laying the dough, flour side down, on a small but firm cushion, quickly dipping my arm into the volcanic oven and smacking the dough onto the inner wall.
It was a case of more encouragement via mild chuckling as my, once again, misshapen often split cooked naans fell to their tandoori doom as I attempted to retrieve them with unwieldy metal hooks the experienced chefs there could probably drive a car with.
Undeterred, it was Indian kitchen round three for me as I joined the brigade at Kutir, also in Chelsea, for evening service. The restaurant is around the corner from Kahani, with the chef-patron Rohit Ghai knowing the majority of the team over there by name. It’s a close-knit community of chefs: Santosh was Rohit’s tandoor chef when he was head chef at Benares.
Kutir recently celebrated its year anniversary, with Rohit’s menu something of an Indian hunting lodge concept, championing game and lesser-known aspects of historical Indian gastronomy. He’s a bit of an innovator (“you can’t just do the same crap if you want to stay ahead”), with the exploration of ingredients through different textures, temperatures and flavours arguably his forte.
After changing into my whites, I first went around introducing myself to the four other chefs in the kitchen (predominantly with my elbow as their hands were covered in last minute prep), before taking my place by the stove and the charcoal tandoor. There were 48 booked for dinner and a quail naan was the first thing to do. Ram, the tandoor chef, plucked a dough from a previously prepped tray and, with a dead straight arm and a liberal bit of butter, started spreading and splaying on the counter top while a chef to our left, Salman, cracked a couple of quail eggs in a pan for scrambling. This would sit atop the finished naan with shaved truffle, a drizzle of truffle oil and a couple of pea shoots.
Ram folded a quail mix of half-cooked meat, chillies and spices into naan (which was slightly smaller than I had come across) before throwing it over their pillow for me to attempt in the tandoor. Ignoring the sounds of previous chuckling in my head, I plunged and smacked with conviction, earning a nod of approval from Ram as the naan held.
Ram has been a chef longer than I’ve been alive and his calmness as the tickets started to pour in was impressive. There are no timers in the Kutir kitchen as the chefs are able to keep track of everything going, with multiple orders for small plates such as aloo tikki with honey yoghurt (chunky potato pancakes), their arancini-esque rice and aubergine dumplings (with aubergine pickle, aubergine chutney and black garlic puree), and 24-hour black dhal getting us going.
Kutir has three tasting menus – signature, vegetarian and hunter’s – with the latter entirely made up of game options. The pheasant (marinated in Indian single malt whiskey, garam masala and vanilla) is the showstopper, with Ram showing me how to skewer pieces onto spears, with a raw piece of potato on the end to stop them sliding off, before plunging them into the tandoor.
With the lid needed for the meats and no stopwatches about, I had no clue as to when we needed to rescue them. Ram obviously did, showing me how to slide all things partridge, pheasant and venison off spears with swashbuckling efficiency. He told me it was around seven minutes for fish and 10 for meats – not all that simple with multiple dishes on the go – and when I smelt a little burning things were often ready, with the meat emerging nicely charred.
Ram has no discernible hairs on his arms due to his long-time association with the demanding oven. And, after we finished with a flurry of slow-cooked lamb shanks and two of the roast duck breast in a Chettinad sauce, I admired the lightly scorched hairs on my own. Perhaps a trip to India for round four?
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