tandoori chicken

Tandoori cooking is a traditional texhnique that has been around for thousands of years, originating in Persia. It was introduced to India by the Mughals.

Archeologists have uncovered remains of tandoors in Rajasthan dating back as far as 2600 BCE.

Tandoori chicken is likely the best known of the tandoori dishes, and may well be the world’s favourite Indian dish.

The tandoor is a clay oven, heated by coals in the bottom. Internal temperatures can exceed 400C. Meat, poultry, or fish are skewered and placed into the oven, where it is partly baked by the high temperature, partly grilled by the radiant heat of the coals, and partly smoked by the burning of the dripping fats and marinade.

Bread, such as naan, is cooked by sticking it to the wall of the oven.

Tandoori cooking was not common in British households in India. Whilst many of the cooks were familiar with the recipes and techniques, there were few, if any, tandoori ovens in the places the British lived. They only became pervasive after the Partition in 1947 when Punjabi Sikhs resettled throughout India, notably into Delhi.

In rural Punjabi villages it was common to have communal tandoors, and they brought this technique and recipes to the wider community.

This recipe is a classic North Indian dish, with a heritage from Persia, via the Punjab. It is not hot. but has a gentle and subtle spice background. Part of the flavour comes from the slightly charred outside of the chicken. Although simple it is a beautiful tasting dish.

In my grandmother’s notes, the chicken was cooked over open coals. They were eating with some colleagues who had a Punjabi cook, and these notes were made by talking to him. It is interesting to observe that these notes were made around 1915 CE, and the marinated chicken was kept safe by standing it near a block of ice. Electric refrigeration was still some way away.

It is also interesting that this same family (and cook) later introduced her to the dish that we now call butter chicken.

You can use breasts, thighs, or chicken pieces. Just adjust cooking times and use a probe thermometer to measure internal temperatures discussed in the recipe. Under-cooked chicken will more than likely kill or incapacitate your guests or family. Equally, you must not overcook the chicken. Tandoori chicken biscuits, as I have occasionally served, taste terrible. The only thing to be said for them is that they are cooked.

Ensure you remove the skin to prepare the dish, whatever chicken you use. Do not cut the chicken into pieces to marinate as that will make the cooking more difficult.

Note that the chicken needs two separate marination periods. The first is just a few hours, but the second needs at least overnight, but up to several days is better. Make sure that the chicken is refrigerated for these marination periods for food hygiene reasons.

The cook time is only around 10 minutes on a BBQ, but it is worth the long marination time to achieve the most flavour. To do this recipe justice you really need to start it a few days before.

The optional tandoori food colour is available from Indian grocers, or you can mix two parts of red to one part of yellow colour to get a similar effect. I recommend that if you do use food colour then you should wear gloves when working the marinade into the chicken. If you don’t, then expect orange hands for the next week or so. It just doesn’t wash off.

We rarely use the food colour.

This recipe is suited to cooking on a barbecue with a lid. Preheat it to very hot, and you will get good results. If you have a charcoal BBQ, that is even better. Of course if you have a tanoori oven, use that.

Tanduri chicken makes a great starter or snack. As a starter, this would serve 6-8 people.

My grandmother’s notes always referred to this as “tanduri chicken”, a habit I have not been able to lose.

the recipe

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  • blender


  • 800 g chicken thigh fillets

first marinade

  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 lemon - juiced
  • 2 tsp tandoori food colour - optional

second marinade

for serving

  • ½ cup coriander leaves
  • 1 tomato - sliced
  • 1 lebanese cucumber - sliced


first marination

  • Make some parallel deep cuts into the chicken thigh fillets on both sides and rub with salt and lemon juice. Place into a bowl.
  • If using food colour, dissolve it in two tablespoons of water, and paint the chicken.
  • Cover and set aside in a refrigerator for four hours.

second marination

  • Place a small frypan on medium heat and add the cumin seeds. Toast them until they become aromatic then remove from the heat. When cool enough to handle, grind to a fine powder.
  • Combine onion, garlic, ginger, chilli, garam masala, the ground cumin seeds and yoghurt. Use a blender to make a smooth paste.
  • Add the yoghurt paste to the chicken. Using your hands, completely coat the chicken, and work the marinade into the cuts. Cover, refrigerate, and marinate overnight at a minimum, or better, several days.

to cook

  • Remove the chicken from the refrigerator an hour before you start cooking to allow it to come to room temperature.
  • The chicken can be baked, grilled, or barbecued. Make sure the oven, griller or barbecue is preheated to its maximum temperature.
  • Shake excess marinade off the chicken and cook until just done. The oven will take 20 minutes, a griller or barbecue takes about 5 minutes a side. Use a food thermometer to ensure an internal temperature of 72C at the thickest part of the chicken. It is acceptable and desirable to have a little charring of the marinade.

to serve

  • Remove the chicken from the heat, rest for 5 minutes, then cut into suitable sized pieces.
  • Place the chicken onto a warmed serving dish. Sprinkle with coriander leaves and serve with slices of tomato and cucumber on the side.


  • You must start this recipe at least the day before you intend to cook it.
  • The chicken needs two separate marination periods and is best left overnight or longer for the second marination.
  • The best cooking method is to use a tandoor. Second best is to use a hot coal barbecue. Cooking under a hot grill is preferrable to baking in an oven.
  • The accepted temperature for chicken is 74C. Cooking to 72C and then resting will ensure you have safely cooked the meat.
  • Ensure you remove any skin from the chicken to prepare the dish.
  • You can use almost any cut of chicken. Thighs, whole legs, drumsticks, or breasts are preferrable. Adjust cooking times appropriately for the different cuts. Bone-in chicken will take longer to cook.

private notes

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Serving: 200 g | Calories: 511 kcal | Carbohydrates: 14 g | Protein: 36 g | Fat: 35 g | Saturated Fat: 10 g | Trans Fat: 1 g | Cholesterol: 201 mg | Sodium: 797 mg | Potassium: 766 mg | Fiber: 3 g | Sugar: 6 g | Vitamin A: 670 IU | Vitamin C: 25 mg | Calcium: 95 mg | Iron: 2 mg

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