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Treat the braai as a tandoor

Tandoori lamb chops the South African way

Animals, says South Africa’s reigning braai guru, Jan Braai, eat grass, leaves and vegetables which they then convert to meat. Now this is a tremendously wise saw, and makes perfect sense. To take this wisdom to its logical conclusion, then, one must urge all vegetarians to adopt a meat diet at once to ensure that they get all that wonderful vegetable nutrition.

In this scenario, the beast becomes a middleman. There’s no need to go directly to the source of vegetable goodness that you seek. Just skip that and consume the cow, or the lamb, or the springbok, who has already done that and taken the requisite nutrients on board.

But I don’t really advocate not eating vegetables. I love them, although not exclusively. But I do like Jan Braai’s recommendation that it’s possible to see the braai – a very hot one, at least – as an alternative to a tandoor, that cylindrical oven made of clay that is used in the tandoori cuisine of northern India. Skewered meat is inserted in it to cook quickly at a very high heat, having first been marinated.

I’d love to have one. It’s on my list. But the problem with tandoors is that most of us just don’t have one in the garden or for that matter the kitchen. But never mind – Jan Braai urges us to skip the “cylindrical clay oven” part of a supposed tandoor and imagine that our flat grid on top of its equally flat “oven” can be a not entirely unreasonable substitute.

Almost anything vaguely meaty can be cooked in a tandoor, so as long as you’ve marinated it in a suitably north Indian way, which generally means with lots of yoghurt and spices, and as long as your braai coals are super hot, you can tandoor-braai anything from chops to pieces of beef or lamb fillet, prawns, chunks of crayfish or certain species of fish. Kingklip would be perfect as it has solid texture and can hold its own against the heat. But it would cook somewhat quicker.

I was perusing the man’s cookbook, Fireworks, when I came upon his recipe for tandoori lamb chops on the braai. Strictly speaking it could be argued that it makes no sense to call something a tandoori dish if it hasn’t been cooked in a tandoor. I get that. But I get his point too. Because tandoori cooking isn’t only about the vessel that the meat is cooked in. It’s that marination thing that gives it its uniquely spicy yet often subtle flavours.

The tandoor cooks meat over an intense heat, over very hot coals, while the fat that drips out of the meat and on to the coals creates scented smoke that then again permeates the meat. That is exactly what a braai does, though to a slightly lesser extent, in that the braai is usually not encapsulated to ensure that as much of the smokiness as possible goes back into the flavouring of the meat. You could, however, get a reasonable stab at that by using a kettle braai.

What you could try when tandoor-braaing your meat is, once the fat starts dripping on to the coals, to cover the meat with a large lid, big enough to capture the smoke and let it hover around the meat.

Either way, give your meat several hours of marination before applying the heat. You can vary this recipe considerably by experimenting with whatever spices you have to hand, but here’s the basic recipe.

Tandoori lamb chops on the braai

2 or 3 lamb or rib chops per person

500ml plain yoghurt

Juice of half a ripe lemon

3cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and very finey chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed and then chopped

1 heaped tablespoon tikka masala or other curry mix of your choice

Pour the yoghurt into a bowl and stir in the juice of half a ripe lemon. Squeeze this through a fine sieve to ensure none of the pips go in. Peel and finely chop the garlic and the fresh ginger, then chop both very finely and stir in. Now add a heaped tablespoon of a tikka masala or other curry mix that you have to hand, and, if you like, teaspoonsful or pinches of other spices such as ground coriander seed, cumin seeds or fennel seeds. For some bright yellow colour, you can add a teaspoonful of ground turmeric (borrie). Mix very thoroughly, and immerse the chops in it, making sure that each chop is well coated with the marinade.

Cover and refrigerate overnight, as it’s best with at least 12 hours marination to tenderise the meat and infuse it with all that lovely spicy flavour.

Cook them on hot coals, turning frequently, until they are cooked medium. Let them rest, covered in foil or in a covered pan, for five or 10 minutes before serving.

Serve them with a fresh and zingy sambal of diced cucumber mixed with yoghurt, lemon, garlic and chopped fresh coriander leaves, a second sambal of chopped tomato and onion, and crisp sautéed potatoes doused in lemon, salt and black pepper.

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