‘Kuzu tandır’ (koo-ZOO’ tahn-DUHR’) is the most beloved lamb dish in Turkish cuisine. It’s lamb so fragrant and tender, it falls away from the bone and melts in your mouth like cotton candy.
Its name, ‘tandır,’ comes from the ancient technique of cooking meat in a special oven made from a pit in the soil. This technique was used for centuries by the Seljuk Turks and their ancestors from central Asia. It’s still seen in Turkey, Greece, the Caucasus, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan today.
These special pit “ovens” were lined with a mixture of mud and thatch or goat hair shaped into a vessel that was wide at the base and narrow at the neck. It was left to dry in the hot sun of the Asian steppes.
Once the hardened vessel was placed inside the pit, wood and coal were burned inside and all but the narrow opening would be covered with soil. ‘Tandır’ ovens were used not only for cooking but for heating dwellings as well.
The traditional way to cook meat in a ‘tandır’ is to hang the lamb whole from a suspended hook over the coals, then cover the top and leave it to cook for hours on end.
Today, there are many places and many famous restaurants in Turkey that still roast lamb in this traditional way. Now, the name ‘tandır’ also refers to any meat roasted slowly in its own juices over coals, on the stove or in the oven.
‘Kuzu tandır’ is easily made in the oven using a metal baking tray and takes only minutes to prepare. The most time is spent for cooking — one lamb leg cooks for nearly three hours. Make sure you’re around to turn the meat frequently as it cooks.
1 leg of lamb (drumstick and thigh portions)
1/4 cup olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
4 to 5 bay leaves
2 to 3 fresh rosemary sprigs
1/2 cup hot water
How To Make It
- When you buy your leg of lamb, ask your butcher to clean off as much excess fat as possible. Then, have the leg separated into three pieces at the joints.
- Preheat your oven to 285° F. Place the lamb in a shallow, metal oven roasting tray. In a bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, and spices. Pour the mixture over the lamb.
- Wearing rubber gloves, rub the mixture all over the lamb, massaging it into the meat for several minutes. Add the bay leaves and rosemary sprigs. Place the tray in the oven uncovered.
- Let the lamb cook slowly at this low temperature for about 1 1/2 hours. You’ll see that the meat will release its fat and juices, then reabsorb them as it cooks. After the first 30 minutes, turn the pieces of lamb over. Repeat this two more times during the cooking process.
- When 1 1/2 hours have passed and you have turned the meat three times, pour the 1/2 cup of hot water over the meat, then close the roasting pan completely with aluminum foil. Turn up the oven temperature to 365° F and leave the meat to roast for at least one hour more.
- After about one hour, remove the pan from the oven and let it rest for five minutes. Remove the foil. The meat should be very tender and fall cleanly off the bones. Using two forks, remove all the meat from the bones and discard them. Also, remove the bay leaves and rosemary.
- Your ‘kuzu tandır’ is ready to serve. Serve it with piping hot Turkish rice pilaf with orzo, or with potato puree.