I left Sudha Chalichamu and Venu Chaganti's house in Scarborough carrying a glass Pyrex bowl filled with marinating tandoori chicken drumsticks. "They're like Indian wings!" I thought, recalling the super spicy, handheld chicken appetizers the Indian couple had just introduced me to. "Only they're drumsticks." The orange paste that Sudha had made out of homemade Indian yogurt and spices was now getting to work on this next batch of meat. Fresh garlic and ginger would add tang and thrust. Ground coriander, a sweet lift. Lemon juice, tenderness. Cinnamon and clove would add an undetectable mystery. Cumin would comfort like a well-lit campfire. Cardamom would be like the fresh, cool, night air. And then the ground, dried hot chili peppers would put on a massive fireworks show.
DELICIOUS — AND SPICY Tandoori chicken drumsticks.
The next day, after the chicken had marinated, I did what Sudha had showed me. I lined two sheet pans with tinfoil, sprayed them with cooking spray, and then placed the goopy drumsticks without touching each other on the foiled pans. They cooked at 425 degrees for about 40 minutes. I flipped them once and sprayed them with oil about halfway through. In Hyderabad, India, where Sudha and Venu are from, the chicken isn't cooked in an oven like we have here, but a barrel-sized clay oven called a tandoor, the dish's namesake. The marinated chicken is skewered on iron rods and roasted in there at super-high temperatures created by wood fires or gas. As Sudha slid her pans into her American range, she said, "We use the oven here." Venu chimed in, "You can grill it, too."
Sudha's husband, Venu, was the one who taught her how to make tandoori chicken. He figured out how to make it when he was a bachelor getting his master's degree in computer programming. At the time, he and Sudha were classmates competing for who was going to be valedictorian. They fell in love and got married, working through the family drama of not having an arranged marriage. After living and working in London, they both found programming jobs in greater Portland. When Sudha was growing up, her mother had discouraged her from cooking, telling her to focus on her studies; after she got married and Venu taught her how to cook, she loved it and now does most of the cooking now for the family, even though they both work full-time.
My American guests were arriving to try tandoori chicken. I was subjecting small children to this taste test because the more spicy-food-loving family friends I can cultivate, the more spicy food I get. Plus, Venu and Sudha said their daughter started liking spicy food when she was just three years old. Venu said he liked the amount of spice to bring him "to the verge of pain." Sudha nodded in agreement. I instructed my fellow Americans, "Okay, now squeeze fresh lime over your drumstick. The sourness tones down the spiciness." One first-grader, a little daredevil who'd just jumped into the 50-degree ocean, took a bite, totally nonplussed. (Does she even know what spicy means?) After six seconds, her eyes opened wide, and her mouth opened as if to scream, and she said, "Ahhh! It's spicy!" I got her some milk. But guess what: she kept eating. We'll have her over again. The fourth and fifth graders ate most of theirs. And the grown-ups discovered a lesser-known slice of heaven that's curiously hot as hell.
For the recipe and live cooking class info, visit immigrantkitchens.com.