I could talk about Paneer Makhani for hours. I have so many stories about and memories of this dish, mostly from my visits to India, but also from great Indian restaurants around the world and the many variations of it.
This dish actually parades about under many names. This is true with many incredible Indian recipes. Anyone who’s been to more than two Indian restaurants or eaten at home with Indian families understands this. In fact, I’ve found myself in passionate debates and confusing conversations revolving around these naming issues! Every family has their own idea of what a dish is and isn’t, what it’s called, and what it contains. Or doesn’t. Imagine trying to get a concise definition of pizza, with all it’s shapes, colors, toppings, and flavors – You start to get an idea how complicated the naming game is.
On my first trip to India in 2001, I met this dish in a back alley diner of Delhi’s grubby, chaotic backpacker neighborhood, Pahar Ganj. I went back to this place every day for almost a week and always got this. By the third time, the staff didn’t even take my order. They just brought my hot curry and rice out with a cold fresh lime soda. They were calling it Shahi Paneer.
In other parts of India, particularly in Maharashtra state where I lived for a year, it ‘s usually called Paneer-Butter-Masala, or P-B-M, for short. Every restaurant and tiffin (lunchbox) service knows they better have a good P-B-M or they’ll soon lose favor with the hungry, discerning masses!
I’m going with the name Paneer Makhani (literally: Cheese Buttery or Butter Cheese or even Cheesy Cream) because that’s what my brother Adam calls it. It’s what his favorite Indian restaurant calls it. When he and his family decided to steer things full-on vegan, he was seriously missing the dish.
I told him I’d get to work on an all-vegan version. Many Indian curries already use a cashew cream base. Coconut or soy milk is easy to substitute for cream, milk, or yogurt. And butter and ghee can be replaced with coconut oil, a decent vegetable oil, or even a quality margarine. Tofu will never really match the flavor of paneer, but I’m not an artisan vegan cheese maker. Anyway, I had to make this dish 4 or 5 times before I felt confident to share the recipe. After today’s knockout results, I knew I was ready to go public.
You can use smoked tofu if you’re not up for batter-frying. I also listed other variations for an awesome vegan Paneer Makhani… with other tasty stuff instead of traditional paneer.
Vegan Paneer Makhani – creamy tomato curry with tofu-paneer
serves 2-3 / time 45+ min
- 7 oz / 200 g tofu pressed (see below)
- 2 tbs lemon juice
- 1 tspn soy sauce
- 2 Tbsn nutritional yeast or chickpea flour
- 2 Tbsn cornstarch
- 2 Tbsn coconut oil or vegetable oil for frying
- Press the block of tofu (about 1/2 of package) wrapped in dish cloth with plate or book on top to remove excess water. After 20 min, unwrap, cut into medium cubes.
- Combine lemon juice, soy sauce, nutritional yeast, cornstarch in bowl. Add tofu cubes, mix well, coat all pieces.
- Heat oil in a sauce pan on medium high. Fry battered cubes evenly until golden brown, about 5 min. Remove, drain, set aside.
- 1/2 cup / 60 g cashews + 1/4 cup / 60 ml water
- 2 medium / 160 g tomatoes chopped
- 1″ / 2 cm fresh ginger chopped
- 1 clove garlic finely chopped
- 1/4 cup / 60 ml water
- 3/4 cup / 180 ml soy milk or coconut milk
- 2 Tbsn oil
- 1/2 tsp brown mustard seeds
- pinch asafoetida (hing)
- 1 tsp coriander ground
- 1 tsp cumin ground
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 Tbsn tomato paste
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 3/4 tsp sugar
- Soak cashews in 1/4 cup water in bowl, 30-60 min.
- Puree tomatoes, ginger, garlic with 1/8 cup water in food processor or blender. Add slightly more water if needed for smooth puree.
- Heat oil in a large pot on medium high heat.
- Add mustard seeds. After they start to pop, add asafoetida, coriander, cumin, garam masala. Fry 1-2 min, stirring constantly.
- Add tomato puree, bay leaf, tomato paste, turmeric. Mix well, bring to slow boil, reduce heat to low. Simmer partially covered, stirring regularly 5 min.
- Add remaining water (about 1/8 cup). Stir, continue to simmer 5 min on low.
- Blend cashews with soaking water until smooth in small food processor or blender. Add soy milk and blend smooth.
- Add blended cashews and soy milk to pot with tomatoes and spices. Add salt, sugar. Return to simmer.
- Mix in fried tofu cubes. Return to simmer, cook partially covered, stirring regularly, about 5-7 min.
- Garnish with fresh chopped coriander or parsley. Serve with lemon slices and basmati rice, chapati, or naan.
Vedic (No garlic or onions): Omit garlic and onions and increase hing slightly. No Tofu: Prepare with sliced mushrooms, seitan, or chopped cauliflower – may be batter-fried or simply added halfway through curry cooking. Spicy kick: Fry 1 chopped chili pepper or 1/2 tsp red chili flakes with other spices. No Cashews Creamy: Use 3/4 cup soy cream + 1/4 cup water instead of cashews and soy milk.