New Delhi: In the Lal family, it is a well-known fact that one of its members invented the commercial tandoor, paving the way for naans and tandoori chicken to make it on to takeout menus across the world. Establishing exactly who that member is, however, depends very much on who is telling the story.
In Naresh Lal’s version, it was his grandmother. “She was from Punjab, and she was used to domestic ovens made of mud,” Lal, the 45-year-old owner of a tandoor-manufacturing firm named Parshadi Lal and Sons Pvt. Ltd, says. “She started making her own tandoors by hand, and in the late 1970s, when a lot of hotels were coming up in Delhi in anticipation of the 1982 Asian Games, they began looking for tandoors for tandoori restaurants. So my grandfather took it up as a business, and here we are.”
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Naresh Lal’s father’s cousin, Munnilal, narrates an alternative history. “Just after Partition, a number of Pakistani refugees came into Delhi, and they came to my grandfather, asking him to make a clay pot-like oven,” Munnilal says. “He made the first one for a hotel near Sadar Bazaar. My grandfather was of the kumhar caste—he worked with clay, making toys and little pots, and so on—and when the demand for the tandoor rose, he moved into that line.”
These divided views arise from a divided family. In 1998, after making tandoors together for nearly 20 years, after being the first to export the tandoor, and after fanning the business into a roaring trade, the Lals split. Naresh Lal started Parshadi Lal and Sons, naming the firm after his father; he diversified into other kitchen equipment in 2002, but he still calls the 1,500 clay tandoors he makes every year the core of his business. That same year, Munnilal renamed his business from Munnilal and Brothers to Munnilal (India) Pvt. Ltd, and he still sells only tandoors—at least 2,000 annually.
The basic techniques of tandoori cooking date as far back as the Indus Valley civilization, but until the 1960s, earthen ovens were custom-built by artisans in situ, either in homes or in a village’s communal bakery.
“Tandoori cooking started taking off in hotels only in the 1980s,” says J.P. Singh, executive chef at the Bukhara restaurant in Delhi’s ITC Maurya. “Bukhara got its tandoor in 1977, from Munnilal.”
The tandoori restaurant, as a concept, was made possible only once the commercial tandoor—portable, easy to manufacture, and therefore saleable—was developed, and Singh and other industry experts unanimously point to the Lals as the pioneers of the commercial tandoor. Even in a fairly well-populated trade, Singh estimates that the firms of Naresh Lal and Munnilal hold close to 50% of the market; Naresh Lal puts it closer to 75%, especially when exports are factored in.
The gulf between Naresh Lal and Munnilal notwithstanding, their factories still lie within a few kilometres of each other, in northern Delhi. In a village named Bhalaswa, otherwise famous for its landfill, Munnilal makes tandoors in a higgledy-piggledy complex of buildings, in an alley known locally as Tandoori Gali. He makes so many that they spill over on to the road, large clay pots standing like silent signals of the activity in this neighbourhood.
In a small metalworking shop, Munnilal’s assistants cut and weld sheets of metal into the cubical outer cases of commercial tandoors. (“Over a period of time, the tandoor makers woke up to the changes in the industry,” says Sonia Mahindra, director of Under One Roof, a restaurant consultancy. “So they started making the outers as well as the clay inners.”) Munnilal and his two brothers, however, are always to be found in a shed next door, dressed in singlets and trousers, mucking about with clay.
Every week, Munnilal has a truckload of terracotta-quality clay dumped into his front yard. With this clay, and with sawdust and goat hair mixed in to bind it all together, he makes a thin, foot-high ring; after allowing it to dry, he builds a second ring on top, and then another, curving the top of the final ring into a neck. (“My father used to use horse dung as binder, but we replaced that with sawdust,” Munnilal says.) When he has raised them incrementally thus, almost like children, he sends them off into the world to make their daily bread. The most spare clay tandoor costs Rs1,500; the biggest size, in its metalled shell, can cost more than Rs30,000.
It was in this workshop, Munnilal claims, that Naresh Lal first learnt the art of fabricating a tandoor. “He was an accountant earlier, and then he gave that up and joined me. I took him to Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore with me, when I went there to make or install tandoors,” Munnilal says. “But then he saw the volume of work, and he slowly started siphoning business away to himself and started his own company.” And then, most witheringly, Munnilal adds: “His name isn’t even Naresh Lal, it’s Naresh Kumar. He added the ‘Lal’ just to demonstrate that he was of this family.”
Naresh Lal insists, however, that the split was amicable, and that he still considers Munnilal his teacher and mentor. His factory, a little distance north of Munnilal’s, lies dispersed over Saroop Nagar; his metal shop and corporate office occupy one building, a storage shed is a few streets away, and his clay tandoor “factory”, with its 10 itinerant workers, is really an open plot of land surrounded by other open plots of land on Saroop Nagar’s outskirts. It looks considerably less scientific and more ad hoc than Munnilal’s workshop.
“When I was a boy, I was always the one trying to avoid doing this work, although my brothers and sisters all helped out with making tandoors,” Naresh Lal says. “It’s ironic that they’re all doing something else now, and I’m the one getting my hands dirty. But I love doing it now.”
To the utter confusion of one onlooker, Naresh Lal drives up to the open factory in his Hyundai Verna and immediately proceeds to strip down to singlet and underwear. Like Munnilal, he relishes working with his hands, and the seat of his formal trousers bear large smudges of clay. Even in the late afternoon sun, he squats over a thin carpet of wet clay, pounding the air out of it with his palms. At least 40 tandoors in various stages of completion are drying around him; in his storage shed, he counts 98 finished tandoors. One batch of six has been packed for export to Qatar; another batch of three is headed to Australia.
Naresh Lal’s technique varies slightly from Munnilal’s. In addition to clay, he uses black mud collected from sugar cane fields in Haryana and Punjab, and instead of goat hair, he uses horsehair. There are two other ingredients, but Naresh Lal refuses to reveal them to the public: “There is such a thing as a trade secret, after all.”
For what is, in its essence, still a traditional, artisanal craft, tandoor-making is enjoying a boom like never before, Naresh Lal says. “Right now, 75% of my demand is from overseas, and for comparison, I was making only 400 tandoors a year 10 years ago,” he says. “There are plenty of manufacturers who make tandoors that crack within six months, and then those customers come to us, because our tandoors can last even two years with proper care.”
Munnilal might disagree with at least a part of that statement; he insists that Naresh Lal does not know how to make a good tandoor. But he agrees with Naresh Lal’s roseate view of the market. “It’s a tough art, I’ll admit. A man cannot learn it fast, he needs five or 10 years to become a master,” Munnilal says. “But I learnt to work with mud, and I sent my children to college by working with mud. That’s my biggest achievement.”