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Meats and fish cook in a flash in India's ancient clay ovens

It seems paradoxical, in this age of high technology, to find that the most primitive cooking methods from the past are still able to produce delectable results which remain unsurpassed. Take the tandoor, a simple clay oven from northern India. Fired by the most basic of fuels -- wood or charcoal -- the tandoor attains an intense heat which enables poultry, meat, fish, and bread to be cooked extremely quickly -- in some cases almost instantaneously.

Whole chickens, marinated in an orange-red yogurt and spice mixture, are skewered and thrust into the dome-shaped tandoor where they cook, on average, in as little as 15 minutes. Tikka Kebabs or seekh kebabs -- skewers of cubed chicken or ground lamb -- are cooked to perfection in minutes in the searing heat of the tandoor. Whole marinated fish such as mackerel and jumbo shrimp, marinated in yogurt and threaded onto skewers, are also excellent when prepared in this unique oven.

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Along with these specialties, yeasty naan breads are slapped onto the actual clay walls of the tandoor. Delicious, doughy, and charred, they are the perfect accompaniment to the yogurt-coated tandoori chicken, meats, or fish.

In Britain and in New York and other cities in the United States these tandoori foods are available in any number of excellent Indian restaurants with charcoal-fired clay ovens in their kitchens.

Since the English like tandoori foods so much, they have experimented with making tandoori dishes at home. Pieces of chicken or lamb, jumbo shrimp, or whole fish, marinated in a yogurt-and-spice tandoori mix, can be skewered and cooked quite successfully over a very hot charcoal grill. But to cook whole chickens, I have found that the best method is to improvise the clay oven tandoor by lining a domestic oven with thick terra cotta tiles. (Giuliano Bugialli, in his excellent book ``The Fine Art of Italian Cooking,'' suggests a similar method for improvising a Tuscan brick bread oven by lining the bottom of an oven with clay tiles, then preheating it to its maximum setting.)

A whole chicken, split down the middle and partly boned to facilitate cooking, will be perfectly cooked in as little as 20 minutes. The clay tiles, moreover, somehow impart that magic, inimitable flavor of the clay tandoor. Tandoori Chicken 1 whole chicken (3 to 3 1/2 pounds) Salt Juice of 1 large lemon or 2 limes Mixture of red and yellow food coloring (optional) Lime wedges to garnish Marinade 1/2 small onion, roughly chopped 2 cloves garlic 2-inch piece of fresh root ginger, roughly chopped 1/2 fresh hot chili 1 pint plain natural yogurt 3 teaspoons tumeric 3 teaspoons paprika 1/2 teaspoon cayenne 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamon 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed Pinch of cinnamon Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg Freshly grated black pepper

Split chicken down backbone and skin completely. Remove backbone and rib cage and make an incision at joint between thigh and drumstick.

Slash skinned chicken to the bone in several places to enable marinade to penetrate. Spread chicken out in a dish; sprinkle with salt and lemon juice. Set aside for half an hour.

If the characteristic orange-red color is desired, paint skinned chicken with a diluted mixture of food coloring before marinating.

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Combine all marinade ingredients in food processor and blend to a smooth paste. Rub marinade all over chicken, making sure it penetrates slits. Cover and refrigerate 24 hours, turning occasionally.

Line bottom of an oven with thick clay tiles and preheat to maximum setting. Remove chicken from marinade and place on a rack over a baking tray. Cook in a very hot clay-lined oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until done, depending on the size of the chicken. Cut into quarters, garnish with lime wedges, and serve with rice or naan bread and cucumber and mint raita. Serves 4.

Note: The tandoori marinade can be used on lamb, fish, or shrimp.

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