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The Tandoor: No Longer Just a Punjabi Oven




Ron Levy never intended to become a tandoor mogul.

In fact, he had never heard of tandoors - Indian clay cooking vessels that are part oven and part barbecue pit - until 1986, when a New York gallery exhibited six-foot pots he had made, inspired by amphorae on Crete. A man with an Indian accent called, wondering whether Mr. Levy, a ceramic artist, could make a large pot with a tapered mouth, no bottom and no glaze: a tandoor.

After it was installed at a Columbus Avenue restaurant called Indian Oven, word spread through the community, and orders began to pile up.

"It came to the point where I had to stop doing my ceramic artwork, and focus on tandoors full time," Mr. Levy, 63, recalled.

So he converted his studio on Mulberry Street in Little Italy into a tandoor factory. Over the past three decades, he has built more than 2,000 for restaurants across North America, including the Bombay Club in Washington and Bukhara Grill and Dawat in Manhattan, and as far away as Mexico, Belize and Fiji.

"Coming from a fine arts background, it was very satisfying to make something so functional and so useful," Mr. Levy said. "I think of it as ceramics that feeds the body, in addition to soothing the soul."

Now Mr. Levy has developed a tandoor for home use, the Homdoor. It starts at $1,200.

One of them, a waist-high clay pot sheathed in stainless steel and looking vaguely like a "Star Wars" robot, sits just outside the ceramics studio on Islamorada in the Florida Keys, where he now lives. With palm trees and the azure ocean as a backdrop, sparks and flames from glowing charcoal shot from its mouth.

Michael Ledwith, the chef of Hungry Heron Catering nearby, threaded spice-crusted rectangles of steak onto long metal skewers and patted yeasted dough into the flatbread naan. Mr. Ledwith seasoned the beef with an aromatic mixture of ground pepper, mustard and fennel seeds, and grains of paradise, dried black berries in the ginger family that taste like a cross between black pepper and allspice. The beef came out of the blast-furnace heat of the tandoor with an explosively flavorful crust and uncommonly succulent center.

The traditional tandoor that Mr. Levy set out to copy 30 years ago was typically an unfired vessel, the clay walls strengthened with straw and animal hair.

"It was very unsanitary," Mr. Levy said, adding that ovens shipped to the United States "often arrived from India broken, or would crack with extended use." The tandoor's shape, a cylinder with sloped clay walls, has remained essentially unchanged for 5,000 years.

Mr. Levy's first innovation was to fashion the body from a blend of earthenware and stoneware, the former chosen for its modeling and expansion properties, the latter for its ability to withstand high heat without cracking. For porosity (an essential quality so that flatbreads can cling to the oven's inner walls), he added finely ground fired clay, known as grog. For insulation and extra strength, he developed a clay and vermiculite mixture that could be baked onto the exterior of the pot.

Finally, he devised a sturdy stainless steel housing, so the tandoor could be sold and installed as a movable, freestanding unit.

"We've been using Ron's tandoors for the last 20 years," said Vicky Vij, an owner of Bukhara. "They outlast any Indian clay tandoor. They're masterpieces."

As demand and production picked up, Mr. Levy bought an enormous Hobart mixer, which he was told came from an old Navy ship, to blend the clay. He built plaster molds to shape the ovens.

After the pots are formed, each one is turned by hand on a giant wheel to smooth the interior. The tandoors are dried, then baked at 2,000 degrees in a gas-fired kiln for seven hours, transforming the soft clay into hard, heat-resistant ceramic. The entire manufacturing process takes about two weeks.

The tandoor may have originated in Rajasthan, India, where archeologists have found tandoor remains dating from 2600 B.C. - about the same time as the pyramids. The first tandoors were used to bake flatbread, a tradition that survives in Punjabi roti, Afghan naan and Turkmen chorek.  

Visit a bakery on the teeming Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi - or any Punjabi or Indian restaurant, for that matter - and you will see fresh naan being made to order. Soft white balls of yeasted dough are rolled into flat cakes, which are draped over a round cloth pillow called a gadhi and pressed onto the hot inner walls of the tandoor, where they puff, blister and brown in minutes.

The searing heat and smoke, and moisture-retaining properties of the tandoor, make it equally effective for roasting meat on vertical skewers, a delicacy mentioned by the surgeon Sushruta as early as the eighth century B.C. Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal, held the tandoor in such high esteem he had a portable metal model constructed to take on his travels.

In spite of its ancient origins and utter simplicity, the tandoor produces startlingly sophisticated results, including smoky flatbreads that puff like pillows, and roasted meats of uncommon succulence.

According to Mr. Levy, tandoor cooking uses four distinct techniques. Direct heat rises from the charcoal, a process akin to grilling. The hot clay walls of the oven cook bread, similar to griddling or skillet-roasting. Radiant heat in the belly of the tandoor produces results similar to convection baking. And smoke, which occurs as the marinade and meat juices drip onto the hot coals, adds fragrance and flavor.

The tandoor's cooking properties have made it the preferred barbecue pit throughout Central and South Asia and the Caucasus region. Iranians call it tanoor; Uzbeks, tandyr; Azerbaijanis, tandir; Armenians, tonir; and Georgians, tone.

But the center of tandoori cooking is Punjab, particularly in the area referred to as the Northwest Frontier.

As a young girl growing up in Delhi, the actress and cooking authority Madhur Jaffrey had never heard of a tandoor. It was not until 1947, when Pakistan gained its independence from formerly British India, that a wave of Sikh and Punjabi refugees brought the oven to Delhi.

Ms. Jaffrey discovered tandoori chicken, young birds weighing at most two and a half pounds, robustly seasoned with salt, yogurt and lemon juice and dyed orange with food coloring.

"It was totally exotic - meat cooked to order for just a few minutes," she recalled. "We Indians were so used to cooking meat to death."

Mr. Levy developed his home tandoor - available at - to be small and portable enough to use in a backyard, yet big enough to cook for a large family. At the suggestion of a chef in Miami, he widened the Homdoor's mouth to accommodate up to six pieces of naan at a time.

Because of its design - a vent at the bottom draws air, and the inward slope of the mouth traps the heat - a tandoor can reach 500 to 750 degrees with a single load of charcoal. For ease of use and temperature control, Mr. Levy found an optional 100,000 B.T.U. propane burner that can heat a bed of ceramic briquettes at the bottom. (For purists, the Homdoor also burns charcoal.)

He also commissioned custom skewers with wooden handles from a metal worker in Oregon. He hired a seamstress in Los Angeles to stitch the gadhis.

The final challenge was production. Mr. Levy made his commercial tandoors in small batches as orders arrived. His business plan for the Homdoor, on the other hand, calls for 500 units to be built the first year. Last year, he joined forces with a ceramics company in Uhrichsville, Ohio.

"It turns out, they were using the same press molds and virtually the same ceramic blend for their fireplace components and chimney flue liners that I use in my tandoors," Mr. Levy said.

Following Mr. Levy's specifications, the company has built 50 Homdoors, tweaking the shape, propane burner and casing. Another hurdle was bringing the weight of the unit down from 350 pounds to 140 or less, at which point it could be shipped by U.P.S. The first commercial unit rolled out in March. He was so pleased with the result that all of his tandoors are now made in Ohio.

Even without a tandoor, you can approximate the explosive flavors of authentic tandoori cooking by using a grill or broiler. The naan and mushroom recipes here are adapted from Bukhara Grill in Manhattan; the steak dish is Mr. Ledwith's. It's a dish you won't find in India, where cows are considered sacred by the Hindus.


[Courtesy: New York Times]

May 11, 2011



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