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A Tale of Two Tandooris

I tweaked my mother's time-honored recipe—and the world didn't end after all.

— Kate Mathis

En español | One of my favorite dishes growing up was my mother's tandoori chicken. She would spend hours—okay, days—preparing the dish: drying her own chilies, grinding her own spices, even making her own yogurt for the marinade. "This is what you do when you care about what you serve your family," she always said.

As I began to cook the dish on my own, I tried hard to stay within my mother's everything-from-scratch standards. One day when I was short on time, I used store-bought Greek yogurt instead of making my own. The result was excellent, but my heart was heavy. I felt as though, in tampering with the recipe, I was tampering with my childhood memories.

Then I did the unthinkable. For a work project, I was asked to test spice mixes. I bought the tandoori spice mix, fully expecting to hate it. I didn't. In fact, it was delicious. My children loved it, and my husband raved. It wasn't long before my version of tandoori chicken replaced my mother's.

On my next visit to India, I took the spice mix with me. Not surprisingly, my mother was appalled. Spices that weren't ground fresh at home had no place in her larder. But later that same visit, she asked me to prepare tandoori chicken. I considered throwing out the mix and using the spices from her spice cabinet. But I didn't.

With trembling hands, I served the dish. My mother took a bite but said nothing. We ate in tense silence. Perhaps I had expected too much—that my mother would embrace a meal that defied everything she'd taught me.

Then she cleared her throat and asked: "Is there any chicken left?"

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