Tofu isn't everyone's favourite. It's not potato after all! Although tofu isn't cheered as much for its mild flavour, it's a sought choice for a vegan diet. Wait till you cook it well and flavour it appropriately, I can guarantee that you wouldn't mind exchanging it for paneer or any of your favourite meat.
Tofu is believed to have been discovered 2000 years ago when a Chinese cook accidentally curdled soy milk by adding nigari seaweed. It was introduced to Japan in the eighth century where it was called 'okabe' at that time.
This recipe is a vegan variation of the popular Indian dish, saag paneer. The term saag in India refers to any leafy vegetable such as spinach (palak), mustard greens (sarson), collard, basella (poi), amaranth (lal saag or chaulai), sorrel (khatta palak), fenugreek leaves (methi), kale, goosefoot (bathua) and many more. Some of these greens such as collard and kale are not indigenous to India, and you would hardly find an Indian equivalent name for these greens. For the same reason, I haven't mentioned any Indian names in brackets for these!
Moving to the complexity of the term saag, I would like to let you know some other names of saag. The term saag becomes haak in Kashmir in India and it's a common Kashmiri reference to many types of greens like mujj haak (radish greens), monjji haak (cohlrabi greens), vopal haak (dandelion greens) or vast haak (red spinach or amaranth). So, haak is a collective name rather a single name for an individual green leafy vegetable. It has been often suggested that the collard greens of the western world resemble the Kashmiri haak. While collards have bigger leaves and thicker stems, the Kashmiri collard (haak) is tender and delicate with about three to five leaves in a bunch. The entire leaf is cooked as a whole in a haak as compared to the western collard whose hard stem is discarded.
What about this saag recipe?
Finding indigenous saag or haak in Canada is not an easy affair. It's almost impossible to find the typical Indian saag varieties in Whitehorse. So, this saag recipe uses kale, collard and one Indian saag, spinach.
Contrary to the subtle no-spice saag cooked in Indian homes, this vegan saag paneer resembles the palak paneer you would get in an Indian restaurant or made in an Indian home kitchen. Traditional saag hardly uses any spices. The leaves are boiled and seasoned with salt, asafoetida and green chilies. An occasional appearance of ginger or garlic adds some flavour and sometimes a sprinkle of red chili powder may do the trick. This recipe however blanches and blends the greens to give it a creamier curry like texture.
You can make this recipe with paneer too. If you wish to skip paneer or tofu, you can add vegetables like potatoes, pumpkin or eggplants, and that would make a very home style saag. More on that coming shortly in another post!
I have used coconut yogurt in this recipe to add an extra creamy and sour tone to the dish. You can skip it or use fresh cream if you're making a non-vegan recipe.
To keep the texture of the traditional saag alive to some extent in the recipe, I do not like to blend the greens into an extremely fine paste. If you see the pictures, you will notice it's still not like a creamy curry rather has a slightly raw finesse.
I love tossing or grilling tofu in a light chili-oil mix before adding it to any dish, and that's what I have done in this recipe too. This enhances tofu's taste and I recommend not skipping it!
If the concept of match made in heaven is true, it certainly bears fruit in the combination of green leafy vegetables, mustard oil and garlic. This trio will never fail you, and undoubtedly I have used both mustard oil and garlic to cook this vegan saag paneer. You can switch to another oil if for some reason you don't like mustard oil or don't have access to it.
For the puree:
1 large bunch of kale
1 small bunch of spinach
1/2 tsp cumin powder
4-5 cloves of garlic
1 green chili
1 black cardamom
For the tofu:
200-250 grams tofu cut into cubes
1/2 tsp oil
1/4 tsp red chili or paprika
For the gravy:
2 tsp mustard oil or any other oil of your choice
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 bay leaf
1/2 inch ginger and 2-3 cloves of garlic pounded into a coarse paste
1 medium onion finely chopped
1 medium tomato finely chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp red chili or paprika
1 tsp coriander
2-3 tbsp coconut yogurt
1 tsp dry fenugreek powder (optional)
Blanch and make the green paste
Tear off the kale and collard leaves from the hard stem, cut off a portion of the stem from the spinach leaves and dunk all into boiling water.
Keep for about 45 seconds and then drain under cold running water.
Add cumin, garlic, chili, peppercorns and cardamom along with the blanched leaves to a blender and make a slightly coarse paste. Keep aside.
Toss the tofu
Place a pan or skillet on medium heat and add oil. As soon as the oil is hot, add the red chili or paprika, lift the pan off the heat so that the chili does not burn and gently turn the pan around to let the oil and chili spread in the pan.
Add the tofu cubes and let them sizzle. Turn the cubes after 2-3 minutes to let them sizzle on the other side. Then remove the tofu from the pan and keep aside.
Make the gravy:
In the same pan, add mustard oil and once the oil starts smoking up, add cumin and bay leaf.
Add the ginger-garlic paste and sauté for a few seconds taking care to not burn the paste. Next, add the onions and continue sautéing until the onions start turning pink.
Add turmeric, red chili, and coriander and sauté till the onions are light brown. Then, add the tomatoes and cook until the tomatoes are softened. Add splashes of water if the spices stick to the pan or skillet. Add salt to taste.
Add the green puree and mix everything well, cover the pan and let the mixture cook for about 4-5 minutes.
Open the pan and add the coconut yogurt. Adjust water and seasoning if needed, and then turn off the heat.