Once upon a time, I barely knew how to cook. I could make eggs and I liked baking a couple of simple cakes and cookies, but that was it. Then I ended up in the big city for grad school, no longer sheltered under the umbrella of on-campus housing and meal plans. And I no longer had my parents around to cook for me like they did when I moved home for a couple of years after college. So I knew it was time for me to learn how to cook for real. And believe it or not, tandoori chicken (my mother’s recipe to be exact) ended up becoming one of the first “proper” things I learned to make, thanks to a holiday party I was throwing for my classmates. Even though it was my first time making the chicken that night, it turned out pretty great. The dish has since become one of those items I make for large gatherings and smaller at-home dinners alike.
This particular recipe is not very complicated. In fact, it incorporates some ready-made tandoori masala (easily found in Indian grocery stores if not elsewhere). I don’t feel particularly bad about including a pre-made spice blend. I don’t think it’s necessary to over-complicate food at all times and this is one recipe that has been really reliable for me over the years.
Depending on your spice mix, the chicken (as pictured in my post) may not turn out bright red — or as artfully blackened in parts — as restaurant tandoori chicken does. (If you’re really hung up on this, I do believe the “Shan” brand of tandoori masala has more of a red hue). If you’re like me, you’re cooking this in your average home oven, not a tandoor oven, which would churn out different results. But there’s still loads of flavor to be had thanks to the marinade, which is yogurt-based.
A word of warning: The recipe I’m sharing with you is my mother’s, with a few minor tweaks in language here and there. One thing I’ve learned about learning Indian cooking from your parents is that you are likely to get imprecise directions. When talking to my dad, for example, I’ve been given instructions like “Use a finger’s worth of this.” It used to frustrate me a bit and sometimes it still does. But there’s something very freeing about it too. So what I’m telling you is, my directions are pretty loose, though I will have some extra notes to avoid confusion. This is what makes it easy for you to adapt the recipe according to the quantity you need.
Because I usually make this chicken for social gatherings, often ones where someone might not always get a place to actually sit down (hello NYC apartments!), I tend to use boneless skinless pieces. But you are more than welcome to use bone-in pieces if you’d like. And while I generally used chicken breasts when I first started out, I am more likely to use chicken thighs these days because the flavor ends up even better. That said, I did use mostly breasts (with a couple of thighs) when photographing this blog post because that’s what I had on hand.
If I’d been trying to share this recipe a couple of years ago, my mother probably wouldn’t have let me do it. But lucky for you, she’s feeling generous and letting me disclose one of our so-called family secrets. So take a look and give this recipe a try when you have a chance:
- Boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts (you may use bone-in if preferred)*
- 1/2 to 1 tbsp plain yogurt per breast or thigh (gauge amount according to size of piece)
- 1 tsp tandoori masala per breast or thigh
- 1/4 to 1/2 tsp salt per breast or thigh
- Juice from fresh limes**
- Pinch of coriander powder per chicken piece (2 tsp would work for 8 breasts or thighs)
- Pinch of cumin powder per piece (2 tsp would work for 8 breasts or thighs)
- 1 to 2 tsp of red chili powder, depending on serving size/preferences
- 1/4 tsp garlic powder per breast or thigh (optional; can also substitute fresh minced garlic)
- 1 to 2 tbsp neutral cooking oil
- 1. To make the marinade, mix yogurt, tandoori masala, powdered cumin and coriander, chili powder, salt, juice of lime, garlic and oil in a bowl (preferably glass).
- 2. Cut up the chicken into 2-3 inch pieces. Puncture the meat with a fork and immerse it in the marinade. Make sure everything is nicely coated.
- 3. Marinate, covered, for about 5 to 8 hours in the fridge. (Do at least 2-3 if short on time).
- 4. Preheat the oven to 425F when getting ready to cook the chicken.
- 5. Grease an aluminum foil tray with some neutral cooking oil, then add the chicken. There's no real need to put all the marinade in if there's extra. (I use foil trays when cooking for a crowd, but I've been able to prepare smaller quantities in my glass baking dishes).
- 6. Let the chicken cook inside the oven for 20 minutes. Then take out the dish, turn the chicken pieces and let them cook inside the oven at least another 20 minutes. The chicken should be slightly browned and should be at an internal temperature of 165F when done.
- 7. [Side note: If there's a lot of marinade still in your baking tray for some reason, you can either drain it out if you're serving in the same tray or simply remove the chicken from that tray to serve. Tandoori chicken is a dry dish.]
- 8. Serve with onion slices or rings. You can also keep some lime wedges on the side. The chicken can be served as a main course dish, though the smaller boneless approach also allows this recipe to work really well as an appetizer.
- * I highly recommend using thighs.
- ** I've used up to 2-3 limes for 6 to 8 pieces of chicken.
- For clarification's sake: When I say "x amount of an ingredient" per breast or thigh, please do not confuse that with the smaller pieces you cut the chicken into. For instance, 1 tbsp of yogurt would be used for an entire thigh, 3 tbsp for three thighs, and so on, regardless of how many smaller pieces of chicken you cut up.
- Adapted from Mama Rad.
Song Pairing: Kishore Kumar, “Chal Chal Chal Mere Saathi”
I do have a weakness for really old Bollywood songs, even though I pay little-to-no attention to modern Bollywood movies and music. So I’m going to use this recipe as an excuse to post this song from a movie called Haathi Mere Saathi, which focuses on a man who has a special bond with elephants. This particular track involves a scene where the main character asks his elephant friends to help push the car of the woman he’s interested in, and even if you don’t speak the language, I think the upbeat, sweet quality of the song really comes across well in the music. I’m including a Spotify embed below as I always do, but I’m also including an embed from YouTube so you can get a better idea of what I’m talking about.