How Tandoori Chicken Took Over South Asian Thanksgiving Tables

For the diaspora, the no-frills dish has become a curious fixture of the iconic holiday meal.

Mehr Singh

November 24, 2022

How Tandoori Chicken Took Over South Asian Thanksgiving Tables
(Ken Faught/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

On a flight in June 1962 from Bombay to Rome, then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy ate an in-flight meal of “chicken tandoori.” The following year, the Los Angeles Times published a recipe for the spiced, brick-red poultry dish, patterned with stripes of char resembling a zebra’s. The piece included ruminations like “not all Indian food is curry,” followed by “it is surprisingly good.” 

The recipe’s instructions were par for the course: washing and skinning fryer chickens, then creating small incisions to absorb a zingy, Fanta-orange marinade of yogurt speckled with ginger, garlic, and a melange of spices. But the cooking method was a revelation at the time: instead of using the eponymous tandoor, or earthen clay oven, the recipe called for an oven broiler, a touchstone of American kitchens. 

On the East Coast, just a couple of years later, Nan Ickeringill from The New York Times profiled a Mrs. Monoroma Philips in 1964, the owner of a spice store on the Upper West Side called Magic Carpet. Ickeringill watched Philips make puris that swelled up like balloons and slather young chickens with a rust-red powder. Philips told Ickeringill with aplomb that people flocked to her shop for tandoori spice mix and put it on “just about anything but coffee!” (Years later, New York Times readers raved about how they could recreate tandoori chicken without the tandoor by using Monoroma’s Tandoori spice mix.)

The 1960s onwards saw not only the popularity of tandoori chicken recipes in the U.S., but also the arrival of more South Asians due to the Immigration Act of 1965. As the diaspora started adapting and absorbing American traditions, however, a curious dish started appearing on Thanksgiving dinner tables around the country: tandoori chicken.