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November 07, 1985|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

Tandoori. The name evokes exotic images of brilliantly colored diaphanous silks, gold and silver filigree, rubies and diamonds. Dancing girls, elephants and flying carpets.

But if you know what tandoori really means, it would make you sniff the air for the wonderful aromas of baked bread and barbecued chicken. The tandoor, an oven in which an entire category of foods originating in the North West frontier of India (now in Pakistan) are cooked, is probably one of the oldest ovens known to man. However, versions of the 4,000-year-old tandoor have traveled throughout the Near East, Middle East and North Africa.

The tandoor is a free-standing (or sometimes built-in) clay pit about five feet deep. The concentration of heat circulating in its cavity (the opening is about 1 1/2 feet) requires foods to cook vertically, or against the red-hot sides of the oven, which may explain the invention of long skewers and the creation of kebabs. Meat, fish or poultry is marinated and threaded on long metal skewers that are then plunged vertically into the pit where they sear to tender perfection.

Baking bread in the tandoor is hardly child's play. An expert tandoori chef pats dough out into an oval and slaps it onto the red-hot sides of the oven with his bare hands. And that is how it has been done for thousands of years.

Tandoori, although ancient, has become associated with a category of so-called mughalai (meaning Muslim) dishes originating in the area where Islamic influence made its greatest effect in a country where the most of the population is vegetarian. Meat dishes such as curries, kebabs, biryanis (concoctions of rice, saffron and lamb), stews, as well as tandoori dishes are typical of the mughalai style. However, even in non-vegetarian households, meat is used as a supplement to a meal--not as the main feature--a luxury reserved for festive occasions.

Vegetarian dishes developed for the tandoori over the centuries might call for squares of the white Indian cheese (paneer) or fish to cook on skewers.

To see a tandoori at work, we visited the India festival of science at the California Museum of Science and Industry Armory Building, where a full-fledged Indian restaurant serving tandoori dishes has been added. The restaurant, operated by the Bombay Palace restaurant, an Indian restaurant chain, is open daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The festival, which continues through Jan. 15, also includes cultural performances of native dance and music, hand-loom weaving, embroidery, gemstone cutting, solapith work, wood carving, bronze casting and marble inlay demonstrations along with exhibits on technological achievements of India.

Meals at the Museum Restaurant

There, Chef Prem Nath and assistants from the Bombay Palace in Beverly Hills prepare wonderful bubbled naan bread and tikka (barbecued chicken appetizers) and roasted eggplant (bartha) in a glassed-enclosed tandoori kitchen. The enclosure prevents food odors from permeating the halls and valuable fabrics on exhibit. Meals at the museum restaurant are $5.95 to $6.95.

If you are wondering if tandoori can be prepared at home, the answer, happily, is "yes." Tandoori is a great dish for parties since much of the preparation can be done ahead. Asha Anand, the festival coordinator for the Museum of Science and Industry, came to The Los Angeles Times' Test Kitchen to show how easily tandoori chicken and bread can be prepared in a home oven.

"The result is not exactly as it would be from a clay oven, but some can hardly tell at all," she said.

The choice of chicken cuts to use is up to the cook. For parties, Anand uses chicken breasts and thighs. The chicken marinates in a spiced yogurt mixture including a chili spice blend known as deghi mirch , which provides hotness, flavor and color to tandoori meats. This blend and other Indian spices can be purchased at most Middle Eastern or Indian grocery stores.

The marinating takes several hours or, preferably, can be done overnight. The chicken is then baked at highest oven heat until tender. And tender it will be.

Starting off a tandoori meal is usually tikka, an appetizer made by skewering yogurt-marinated cubed chicken or filets of chicken and cooking them as you would tandoori chicken.

The naan , which is brushed with a yogurt-and-poppy seed mixture before baking, is one of dozens of breads made in tandoori ovens. The bread is puffy, light and airy, and dries rather quickly, so it is best eaten fresh from the oven. It, too, is easily adapted for the home oven. Highest possible heat on the oven and close watching are required.

Anand put together a complete tandoori menu.

For a tandoori meal, start with tikka, the skewered chicken-cube appetizer. Tikka is usually dipped in chutney of various types. Anand shared a recipe for chutney made with cilantro and mint leaves.

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