How I met your Tandoor!!

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Living in India, we have all come across a fusion of food from the Northern Choley to the Southern Sambhar and from the Tofu of the North East to the Bombay Duck of the West. Our country has today become a big giant fusion pot that constantly absorbs influences and does out mouth-watering delicacies. In other words, Indian food is a testament of itself of the many years of Foreign Rule, Trade and Religious slashing across the continent and like rock formations, can enable us to witness time periods. Here is the tale of one such element.

Nestled down for an evening meal by a roadside dhabha [eatery] I chanced upon the local “Tandooriya”, a local term used to denote the person who works at the Tandoor. This guy alone was catering to a seating of an odd 100 something hungry bitchy Jaipurians and god was this guy working like a super hero. The speed this guy had was insane. Watching him with eyes like that of a panda watching kung fu, struck by his awesomeness, the way he was able slap the roti like the hulk in just two slaps and smacking it on the hot inner surface of the huge tandoor. Being a curious rat, wanting to understand the unseen from what I see before me, I decided to try and dig in a little only to realize a concept we hold proudly as our own was never ours to claim!

So then, what is a Tandoor? By definition, the Tandoor refers to a cylindrical Clay oven used in dry heat cooking or baking and whose use is spread from West Asia to India and is particularly prevalent in the Caucasus. Interesting, and though trade routes would be first used to justify the spread into Eurasia, dig a little and I realized it’s actually the other way round. The humble Tandoor actually originated in Armenia!

Having the same baffled face as you, I put on my Indiana Jones’ hat as I knew that what lay ahead of me was going to be nothing less than an Experience.

Armenia, an ancient nation sandwiched between Europe and Asia, is said to be the home of one of the oldest civilizations in the world and is the birthplace of the famed Tonir, today’s Tandoor. Mezmerized, I began to wonder how a relatively unheard of country would one day impact the World’s Seventh Largest Nation.

The Tonir, an underground clay oven, is actually one of the oldest traditions of the early Armenians who worshiped the sun to an extent that its symbols were as integral to their culture as being a trader was. The Tonir was once worshipped as it resembled the Setting Sun.  Though borrowed and indigenously mastered in varied countries over the years, Armenians still see it as one of the earliest forms of worship where each time, Armenian women are baking bread or preparing food, they bent down before the Tonir, which also meant worship for deity.

Early Armenians, cooked meals in the Tonir, they used the Tonir to heat the house, moreover, it was perfect for medical purposes, for example, to warm and cure the sick and the afflicted. In ancient times it has been situated in the center of the house, which was symbolizing the permanent providing of sun heat in the house. They were putting “kursi” on the Tonir, were covering it with a carpet and they were putting their feet under the ”kursi” in cold days. The Tonir had also a non bacterial effect, as they have used the cow’s dung or Oompla, as a fuel, which has been famous for its medicinal traits since ancient times.

Later when the Persians ruled over this nation, the concept of Tonir was spread to the far reaches of the Empire being rechristened as Arabic tannūr (تنّور), became Turkish tandır, became Uzbek tandir, became Azeri təndir became Kurdish tendûr. The tendur was then introduced to the then rajasthanis during the invasion time now a part of Pakistan/ sindh which inspired the Bhatti clan of the Thar to built the “Bhatti” where they dug a hole in the sand to cook which gave us beautiful lamb dishes. The Iranian /Persian influence had a key role to introduce and spread the uses of Tandoor in the then northern province. But the modern day India got introduced to the tandoor during the partition of India when the pujabis from the land of sindh migrated to Delhi and set up tandoori chicken dhaabas using a (then transformed) drum shape tandoor which was portable and above the ground level.

But there is another twist, while the Iranians introduced the tandoor to the Northern Province, The Armenians brought the tandoor to the eastern province when they arrived to the Bengal for trade purposes. Armenians had set foot in India with the advent of Thomas Cana who came to the sub-continent Seven Centuries before the arrival of Vasco Da Gama and today we have an approximate 150 ethnic Armenians housed in Calcutta. Even Emperor Akbar’s wife, Maryam ul Zamani was Armenian apart from his Chief Justice and Physician. It was thus no surprise that Armenian Touches were soon felt in the Bengali Dishes as is showcased by Chef Saby and his restaurant Lavaash which serves Armenian inspired Bengali food in Delhi.

Thus even as India, today, may have limited diplomatic relations with Armenia, the nation is far closer to us as is said by many a mother  – through the stomach is the best way to capture a man’s heart.

Chef Vivek Pawar from Bombay