Speedy, as you may have already gathered, is an enthusiastic chef and a fine eater. He has yet to meet the cuisine that doesn’t fascinate him and about which he’d like to know more. He’s been cooking ‘Indian’ food for years (a too-broad term, I think, for the huge variety of regional dishes that originate from the subcontinent). There are not as many ethnic restaurants in Italy as we are accustomed to in the States, so whenever we find ourselves near a good one, we’re likely to take advantage. Coming back to Italy this year we paused overnight near Heathrow Airport and found the Harlington Tandoori Restaurant within walking distance of our hotel in Hayes, where we enjoyed a fine meal.
Afterwards we were fortunate enough to meet the owner of the establishment. Speedy got talking to our waiter, and later the owner about the Tandoor ovens used to make this particular cuisine. We were invited to the kitchen to take a look at the oven:
This is a commercial oven, obviously, but the principles behind its construction are basically the same as have driven Tandoor oven manufacture for millenia (Tandoor ovens, which are found throughout southern, central and western Asia, as well as the Caucasus, date from the Indus civilizations of 3300-1300 BCE). The basic idea is that you have a clay pot in the bottom of which you build a fire; then you put whatever it is you want to cook on long skewers, place the skewers vertically in the oven and lean the tops against the edge of the pot. Cover, and depending on your fire, your food will cook/smoke/bake at very high tempertature (temps can reach near 480 C (900 F) according to Wikipedia). Speedy remembers a visit to an Indian restaurant’s kitchen in London some thirty years ago where the Tandoor oven was the old-fashioned kind, and was set into the floor so that only about a foot of the top was exposed.
That evening as we enjoyed our delicious Tandoori meal (I had fish, Speedy had lamb tikka) a seed was planted. He began to wonder, “Could I construct a Tandoor oven for home use?” Many hours of research later, the answer was yes! Speedy not only learned that he could make such a thing, he learned how to do it, and thus was born the Great Tandoor Project of 2013.
It began with a trip to Piemonte to procur a steel oil drum that our friend Leo found for us at his friend Alessandro’s garage. The clay pot in which the food cooks is not free-standing; it is housed in a larger structure with insulation around it. In the photo above, the commercial Tandoor is in a steel box; ours was to be in an oil drum. An oil drum doesn’t sound very delicious in connection with food, but Alessandro did a masterful job cleaning it up for us, and he removed the top as well.
Leo had gotten us a huge bag of vermiculite to use as insulation (I don’t know where he found it – I’ve looked for it here to mix with soil for potted plants but have not had any luck). Many of Speedy’s internet advisors (lots of them from Australia, immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, etc.) recommended a large flower pot for the cooking chamber, the bottom of which he could remove to use, later, as the top. The next order of business was to get it all into the car and back to Rapallo. As I had somewhat foolishly decided that we should also buy all the plants and other supplies for our garden at the center where we bought the 22-inch tall clay pot, it made for a rather crowded Mini:
We all arrived home safe and sound, and Speedy went to work, first using a grinder to cut the bottom off the pot:
Next he removed about sixteen inches from the top of the oil drum:
The next step was to put down a layer of firebrick set in sand in the bottom of the drum; this he then topped with another layer of cemented firebrick, and the flower pot was cemented to that, top side down.
Then he had to arrange a passage connecting the outer drum and the inner pot (which he had cut before cementing it into place – clever!) to provide air for the fire, to feed in more fuel, and through which to clear out the ashes. He lined this short passage with mortared firebricks and made a smooth cement passage from outside to inside. He used a piece of metal he cut from the leftover part of the drum to construct an overlapping door for the aperture. From his old racing days he found a Spec Racer Ford body latch which was the perfect thing, and he unearthed a handsome brass hinge (purchased for $3.49 from Lindell’s Hardware in Canaan, Connecticut, who knows how many years ago) and mounted them all accurately.
No doubt you’ve already noticed the snappy paint job. High temperature silver paint added just a touch of class to the otherwise work-a-day oil drum. He left the word “Cat,” at this cat-lover’s request. All that remained was to pack the area between the drum and the pot with vermiculite, a job that was quickly done.
Now came the most difficult part of the project – waiting. After a week Speedy began to build a series of progressively larger fires, over the course of the second week. He took this beautiful photo of the first little fire:
Then it was time for a truly hot fire and the first real test; Speedy was cooking his first meal in the new oven: skinless, boneless chicken thighs that he had marinated in yogurt and Tandoor Massala. He also made naan, which he cooked by slapping the flat loaf onto the side of the oven – it had a wonderful smokey taste. It was a fabulous meal. (The potato is there to keep the food from sliding off the skewer, and it’s also really delicious cooked in the Tandoor.)
You may have noticed in one of the photos above that there is quite a crack in the pot. There were a couple of bumps on the road to this first dinner; one was two cracks in the flower pot. They’ve already been mended with a high-temperature glue and all is now well. The other bump had to do with the lovely marble knob that Speedy attached to the top of the lid (formerly the bottom) of the pot. The metal around the knob softened up in the high heat, and when he removed the lid he was left holding a knob as the lid crashed to the terrace where it broke:
But that was easily remedied with the purchase of a ‘sottovaso’ (terracotta saucer or under-plate) at the local garden center. This solution actually proved better than the original because, being slightly larger than the pot, its lip overhangs the side of the pot. He attached the marble knob to it using high-temperature glue and marble mastic, and all is now well. The final, one might say ‘crowning,’ step was to make a cover to put over the top to protect the whole shebang during inclement weather. This called for another sottovaso, this one in plastic, with a hole cut out to accommodate the marble knob of the oven’s top, the hole in turn protected by a terracotta flower pot, decorated with a Ligurian beach stone.
It’s been an engaging project for the past month, and now Speedy has the fun of honing his Tandoor cooking skills. The Tandoor can bake and smoke food; I suspect he will have a fine time learning the subtleties of both approaches. So far he’s doing very well with the smoke:
Last night he produced turkey thighs that were exceptional. I don’t know if it’s the cooking method or the marination, but the meat comes out very tender indeed.
I am looking forward to many more meals cooked in the Tandoor. A side benefit for me is that there are fewer dishes to wash at the end of the meal. Next on the menu: marinated leg of lamb for Leo’s visit next Tuesday. Hurrah! Long live the Tandoor oven!