Charcoal, Exotic Spices and an Unforgettable Wedding
The story behind the success of Tandoor the Indian Grill House
— By Amie Watson
— Photography Kenneth Theysen
At Tandoor the Indian Grill House you hear the hot platters of charcoal-fired meats and vegetables before you see them. Their popular mixed grill dish comes on a sizzling cast-iron plate and includes mouth-watering lamb kebab, chicken, fish, jumbo prawns and home-made paneer cubes. The reputation and success of the dish is due to a traditional northern Indian 700˚F tandoori oven. The sizzling you hear isn’t actually the meat cooking; it’s a layer of onions charring on the cast iron, separating the pan from the tandoor-cooked meat and ensuring that the gently flaking fish stays perfectly tender while you savor the shrimp. But, if any corners of the tandoor-cooked chicken or lamb happen to touch the cast iron before you get to them, don’t worry – the outer sear will reveal a juicy interior, turning each bite into a charred mouthful of joy.
The tandoor-fired lamb chops are another must-have item that come with the same sound effects.
“I use green papaya to tenderize the meat for six hours and then we make a marinade of garam masala, cashew paste, yogurt and black pepper and marinate it for 18 hours,” says owner Rajesh Matai.
The long marinating time followed by a short stint in the high-heat tandoor make the meat incredibly tender and caramelized.
The naan, rolled by hand like pizza dough, is also tandoor-cooked. Slapped directly onto the inside wall, the bread begins to bubble after mere seconds, creating magical air pockets in the fluffy, singed flatbread. A minute later, it’s done and the tandoor chef nudges it off the wall before it’s whisked, still steaming, to the dining room.
The oven itself is the restaurant’s calling card. Matai imported it from India. A metal cylinder about the size of a mini-fridge, it probably weighs more than I do. It sits on the floor of the kitchen and has a round opening at the top through which most of the tandoor-cooked foods are inserted after being speared onto three-foot metal skewers. The temperature can be controlled by removing the lid. Thank goodness the kitchen has air conditioning.
As the chef pulls long skewers of marinated chicken from the tandoor (with not a drop of sweat on his brow, it should be noted), Matai points out a second oven on the floor to the left, which he uses for vegetarian orders. It also comes in handy when they get busy.
Tandoor’s second-floor location at the South Beach Centre mall in the high-rise hotel area is easy to miss, but as the owner of the only two Indian restaurants on Aruba, Matai is very popular, especially with the local Indian community. He’s also the go-to person for catering Indian destination weddings and has become an expert on both single- and multi-day events. He even catered his daughter’s wedding. Her favorite dish? Butter chicken.
Even as the only Indian restaurant owner on the island, Matai strives for quality in his restaurants and catering. He special-orders his garam masala to ensure the perfect spice blend. The secret recipe – as well as many of Tandoor’s other best-loved recipes – came from his brother’s Indian restaurant in Taiwan, where he went to learn to run a restaurant before opening Taj Mahal in Oranjestad in 2001. With that success under his belt, he then expanded with Tandoor the Indian Grill House in 2010.
While he guards his garam masala recipe closely, he says it includes star anise, cinnamon, cumin, bay leaves, black pepper and cardamom. “There are about 21 spices in it,” he says, and it isn’t hot.
“Indian food is spicy in that there are lots of spices in it, but we don’t make it hot. It can be controlled to your level,” he says. For those who request heat, though, he’s happy to serve his food “local-style” with small green Asian chili peppers.
He also caters to dietary restrictions. Much of the menu is gluten free-friendly (though celiacs should note that breads are made in the kitchen). There’s a wide selection for vegetarians and vegans. And anyone can appreciate the special dal mahkani, a spiced lentil dish slow-cooked in the remaining heat of the tandoor overnight, served with or without cream. “By the morning, it’s done,” says Matai.
Personally, he likes starting a meal with grilled meat before moving on to rice and sauced dishes like coconut milk-simmered vegetables, silken eggplant and comforting meat and fish curries. “But lots of people just order the mixed grill and rice,” he says, which was also how I tapped out at my first Tandoor dinner, more than a year ago.
But linger long enough, watching the Bollywood dance numbers on the television screen as the sun sets, and Matai might even join you for a drink. A mango lassi, spicy pinot noir, icy fruit mocktail or a quality glass of whisky and you too could be learning the secrets of blending garam masala and barbecuing the best lamb of your life (with or without tandoor). Me, I’ve been sworn to secrecy.