Whenever I imagine a new dish or want to bring new flavours to our menu, the first thing that comes to mind is tandoori cooking. I start with the tandoor and think, “What can I create this time?” It shapes my whole process.
A tandoor is a clay oven that can be operated using charcoal, gas or electricity. My preference is charcoal, which creates authentic flavours that remind me of my childhood. A tandoor is commonly used for cooking meat and naan, but I cook everything possible in the tandoor because the flavour simply can’t be beaten. Tandoor cooking requires an open fire and hot air. Fat and juices drip on to the charcoal and generate a natural, aromatic smoke that flavours the food.
I started working in a kitchen when I was 15, and it was there that I first experienced using a tandoor oven. The head chef was making a delicately spiced chicken dish, while I merely had the task of making naan dough. But after seeing my interest, he let me watch him use the tandoor and try it for myself. I grew up in Karjanha, a small village in Nepal where not many families had a tandoor at home, so to get my hands on one was really exciting. I quickly fell in love with developing new flavours and dishes in the tandoor, always experimenting and trying to outdo my previous creations.
One of the first dishes I created was chicken marinated in mace and cardamom powder and stuffed with mozzarella cheese, cooked in the tandoor and then wrapped in naan — delicious and, to this day, still one of my ultimate comfort foods.
One beauty of the tandoor is that the chef never stops learning. The smallest changes in heat and fire can have a great effect on the final dish, transforming flavours in whole new ways. I love passing on my skills to anyone I can.
In our restaurant, we have a dedicated “naanery” serving traditional naans and breads cooked in the tandoor, each paired with wines. We serve at least 16 varieties of tandoori bread.
I will never forget that first day in the kitchen, learning from the head chef — it ignited my passion for cooking and I have never looked back since.
Santosh Shah is executive chef at hotel LaLit in London; @chefsantoshshah
Get alerts on Food & Drink when a new story is published