This Is Where The Taste Of Tandoori Chicken Comes From

Tandoori chicken has the innate ability to proudly announce its presence before it gets to the dining table. When it is served on a sizzling platter, tandoori chicken is a play on all your senses where you can catch a whiff the gentle aroma of just-cooked spices that blend with the juices of just-cooked chicken, before you see the curling wisps of smoke, and hear the sizzle of the vegetables caught between the chicken atop and the hot platter beneath. 

To those who haven't had the dish before, tandoori chicken can present itself as a bright red collection of irregularly-shaped chicken chunks (not all tandoori chicken is brightly colored in the same way, but more on that later). When done well, tandoori chicken meat is juicy, tender, and presents a collection of flavors that are elusive and difficult to place, simply because nothing pops and makes itself known to your palate. Here is why that is.

Tandoori spices reflect India's culinary heritage

Tandoori chicken is made with an amalgam of ingredients commonly found in Indian cooking. In her classic recipe for the dish, British celebrity chef Madhur Jaffrey lists yoghurt, onion, garlic, fresh ginger, hot chillies, and a spice blend known as garam masala as components (via BBC). The final ingredient is a toasted spice blend common in Indian cooking, and ingredients in which MasterClass lists as cinnamon, mace, peppercorns, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and cardamom pods. Jaffrey's recipe is without the colored red chili powder and cayenne pepper that other tandoori recipes might have, which gives her home made tandoori chicken a much paler hue. 

But the ingredient list may not explain the elusive flavor of tandoori chicken, so instead, let's turn to science to explain what makes it what it is. Western food leans into the idea of pairing ingredients with matching food molecules to create a distinctive flavor, but Indian cooking doesn't do this, choosing instead to pair flavors that have no relationship to one another. British chef Sarah Ali Choudhury breaks it down for the Independent, saying "The pungent ingredients used in Indian food have subtle molecular-level differences, which distinguishes Indian food from Western food. Out of the estimated almost 400 ingredients in the world, our cuisine creates knock out dishes by using around 200​ of these." In short, tandoori chicken tastes like nothing you've had before because it unites mismatching flavors and spices to create something completely different.