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Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2006 11:03 am

To tandoor or not to tandoor

Here's how to prepare Indian-style shrimp

The tandoor, a clay oven widely used in norther India, burns wood or charcoal and is used to cook a variety of meats and breads.

Some guys collect sports memorabilia or antique beer cans. My husband, Peter, collects barbecue gear. He’s currently the proud owner of two smokers, various grills, an indoor fireplace grill and rotisserie, and the “Party Que,” a Greek contraption designed to rotisserie whole lambs and other small animals. As I write this, a Japanese tabletop yakitori grill is headed our way, along with outrageously expensive bamboo charcoal. Peter is always discovering new equipment or paraphernalia, but his ultimate dream barbecue isn’t new at all. In fact it’s one of the oldest means of cooking on the planet: the tandoor. The only thing keeping Peter from acquiring one (aside from cost) is that he’d need a forklift to move it.

The tandoor is a clay urn, about 4 feet tall, with curved sides. The earliest known examples were found in what is now Pakistan and northwest India during excavations of ancient civilizations. For insulation, the tandoor was buried in the ground with only the opening exposed. Today, although some are still buried, most are aboveground, encased in huge, heavily insulated steel-clad containers (hence the forklift). They’ve become common throughout the subcontinent and are found in Indian restaurants worldwide. The tandoor is traditionally heated with charcoal, although many are now gas-fired. It’s intense heat: According to Charles Soares, chef/owner of Gateway to India restaurant, temperatures inside a tandoor can range from 900 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, with the ideal between 1,000 and 1,300 degrees. But even though the insulation, heat source, and even the clay’s composition may have changed (primitive mixtures contained cow dung), the tandoor’s shape and function are the same today as they were more than 5,000 years ago.

A tandoor acts as both an oven and a barbecue. It’s used to bake wonderful flatbreads. Some are plain, others flavored with ingredients ranging from onions, garlic, and cheese to dried fruits. Dough rounds are slapped onto the tandoor’s interior, where they stick as a result of the high temperature. In only 30 seconds, they’re done and must be immediately removed or they’ll loosen and fall into the fire.

Originally only chicken and lamb were barbecued in the tandoor, but today fish, shrimp, fresh cheese, and vegetables have been added to the list. Many different marinades are used, almost all of which are yogurt-based. After being marinated, the ingredients are threaded onto long skewers, which are then inserted into the tandoor, their tips reaching into the fire. The ingredients are suspended about a foot above the heat source, and the skewer handles rest on the tandoor rim’s edge. As with the breads, everything cooks quickly, with the marinades and searing heat combining to ensure succulence.

Gateway to India prepares excellent tandoori items, as well as those fabulous breads and other savory specialties. (Incidentally, not all Indian food is spicy hot. Soares and his staff are happy to make recommendations and adjust the heat level to your taste.)

Tandoori barbecue is a unique not-to-be missed treat that’s impossible to exactly duplicate at home. However, tandoori preparations can be grilled over a conventional barbecue for a delectable, though different, result. It’s what we do when we can’t make it to Gateway — at least until Peter figures out where to get that forklift.

Tandoori-Style Shrimp

1/2 cup whole-milk plain yogurt
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste (optional)
1/2 teaspoon garam masala (a traditional Indian spice mixture, available at Food Fantasies and Mini Devon Groceries)
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
Extra-large peeled red onion, cut into 1/2-inch rounds
Vegetable oil
Lemon wedges
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves

Put the yogurt in a sieve lined with a coffee filter and drain it for 15 minutes. Place a small skillet over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the coriander and cumin and stir constantly for a few seconds until the spices are fragrant.

Immediately remove from the heat, pour the spices onto a small plate and let them cool.

Once the yogurt has drained, scrape it into a medium resealable plastic bag. Add the salt, ginger, garlic, and spices, including the cumin and coriander. Seal the bag and squish it to thoroughly combine the contents. Add the shrimp, squeeze out as much air as possible, and reseal. Gently squish the bag to completely coat the shrimp. Refrigerate for four hours.

Skewer the onion slices with toothpicks and brush lightly with oil. Grill over medium-hot coals until lightly charred and cooked but still slightly crisp. Set the onions aside while the shrimp is grilling.

Thread the shrimp onto skewers. (Using two skewers makes them easier to turn). Grill over medium coals, turning once, just until cooked through. Cooking time will depend on shrimp size.

Remove the toothpicks from the onions and separate them into rings. Spread evenly over a platter or divide them among individual plates. Remove the shrimp from the skewers and place them on top of the onions. Top with cilantro and garnish with lemon wedges.

Gateway to India, 3115 Chatham Rd., 217-726-6890; Food Fantasies, 1512 Wabash Ave., 217-793-8009; Mini Devon Groceries, 2700 W. Lawrence St., Suite K, 217-787-9151.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz
at realcuisine@insightbb.com.

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