Monthly Archives: June 2012

What’s all this Kadhai aboot anyway?


Besides having a preoccupation with cheese, I’m also hothead. I likes the spicy food, especially when the heat contributes to the overall taste. When consumption of a hot sauce or spicy dish is comparable to drinking battery acid, I’m not a fan, but a good burn that is in balance with a savory or sweet taste or offset with a sour or bitter taste will produce many a satisfactory verbalization from me.

Imagine my delight when I get a chance to sample some spicy cheese, which is exactly what I did in Agra.

After a couple of days of seeing some exceedingly touristy sights (Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and the Itimad-Ud-Daulah) and being hassled by touts and shop keeps all day long, I asked Khan, my guide, to take me to a restaurant that he would go to on a special occasion or to celebrate and I was led to a basement cafe that looked like it was close to closing. Khan talked to the waiter in Urdu and the only word that I could make out was “Canada”. The waiter disappeared into the back and a large man with an apron emerged and said “G’day, what are you all aboot, eh?”

Turns out that this chef/owner lived in Ottawa for a number of years and was a sous-chef at the Fairmont Hotel there and had only returned to Agra recently to open this restaurant. So we talked aboot Canada for a bit and then I asked him what he recommended. He asked how spicy I liked my food and whether I wanted veg or non-veg and then went back into the kitchen while the waiter served me some chai.

I was presented with a kadhai paneer that was amazing. Perfectly spiced with a tangy tomato, onion and pepper sauce that complimented the creaminess of the paneer beautifully. Served with rice and some naan, it may have been the highlight of the city for me (yes, including the Taj Mahal).

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I was so engrossed with the meal that, much to my embarrassment, I forgot to record the name of the restaurant or the chef. But I did want to try to recreate something similar since returning to Canada so I started looking on the internet and in cookbooks. What I found out about Kadhai Paneer was that it was a generalized dish and has a squidrillion variations. You see kadhai is not a flavour or a vegetable or a spice, a kadhai is “a type of thick, circular, and deep cooking pot (similar in shape to a wok) and sometimes refers to a similar vessel that food is served in”.1

So the word kadhai in this instance is used much the same way as pot is in pot roast, or BBQ is used in BBQ chicken, or cup in cup-o-soup.

But through various websites and cookbooks, I’ve found a combination of recipes that I think captures the essence of that dish.

Kadhai Paneer inspired by some basement cafe in Agra that I forgot to get the name of.

Serves 4-8

Ingredients:
4 cups paneer, cubed (I used a store bought package for this recipe, but you could also make your own paneer. If you do, you will need a double recipe)
1 green bell pepper, cubed
2 large onion puréed
1-4 green chillies puréed
6 cloves of garlic, minced
2″ piece of ginger, minced (or 2tsp ginger garlic paste)
3 medium tomato, puréed
1/2 tsp kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves)
2 tsp red chili powder (This is different from the western version of chili powder and is a lot hotter. If you would like a milder dish, use western chili powder or skip this altogether)
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
1tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander powder
3 tsp ghee
1 tsp coarse salt

Using an emersion blender or a food processor, purée the onion along with the green chillies. (For a milder dish, use less chilies or skip them altogether). Set aside.

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Do the same with the tomatoes, purée and set them aside.

Cube the bell pepper and the paneer and set them aside.

Mince the garlic and the ginger and set them aside too.

Lastly in the preparation phase measure out all of your spices combining the chili powder, turmeric, cumin, and coriander, keeping the fenugreek leaves and salt separate.

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In a kadhai or a large frypan, heat 2 teaspoons of the ghee and fry the cubed paneer, turning often, until a golden crust forms on the cubes (about 10 minutes).

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Carefully remove the cubes from the pan (that cheese be hot!) and set aside on a plate with paper towel.

Add another teaspoon of ghee and fry the puréed onion and chilies for 5 mins.

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Then add the chili powder, turmeric, cumin seeds, coriander powder and minced ginger and garlic (or ginger garlic paste) and mix well and fry for another minute or so.

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Add the pureed tomatoes and fry for 10 minutes until the oils begin to separate.

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Add the cubed bell pepper, fenugreek leaves, and salt. Fry for 2-3 mins, until the bell pepper is cooked but still crunchy.

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Add the cooked paneer cubes and mix gently until well combined. Simmer for 2 mins and remove from heat.

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For all of my carnivore friends, a couple of thoroughly cooked and cubed chicken breasts could be substituted for the paneer, or for my vegan friends, a firm tofu and olive oil can be substituted for the ghee and paneer. For my friend who belongs to the Ethical Treatment of Tomatoes Union, I have nothing for you Brutus.

I like to eat this dish while staring at some of the handi-crafts I bought in Agra like my tiger carpet and my marble peacock table top. Then my cats come around like touts and try to haggle my cheese away from me.

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1 From Wikipedia so it must be right.

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Say cheese


I have a preoccupation with cheese.

Both the dairy product, and the adjective describing an inferiority that inadvertently gives something a certain endearment.

I mean I REALLY like cheese. There is nothing better than a big hunk of stilton on a cracker, some havarti between two pieces of bread, gruyére melted in with some eggs, or a wedge of poshekhonsky on a Swiss Air 757 flying over Tehran, while while watching The Jar Jar Binks and Queen Amidala Comedy and Variety Hour on the video monitor mounted in the seat. I just like cheese.

But before I went to India, I wasn’t all that fond of the Indian version of cheese, paneer. I’m going to chalk up this mild disdain that I had to two things. 1) ignorance, and 2) inferior packaged palak paneer (Spinach and Cheese). The only time I ever had paneer was with spinach and thought that even though there is an abundance of cheesiness in their movies and TV shows, there was the limitation of cheese in Indian cuisine.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In India, panneer is used much the way that tofu is used in Japan, and it is abundant. At most restaurants, if there is a dish or curry or deep fried wonder that uses chicken, there is usually a paneer option. Even the fast food restaurants, like KFC or McDonalds, have paneeer options (although I’m not a fan of the paneer kickers, the McPaneer, or the “Finger lickin good blobs of paneer in the Colonel’s eleven herbs and spices”).

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While in Agra, I had a fantastic kadhai paneer that impressed me so much that I forgot to get the name of the restaurant, and the tandoor paneer at Club India in Main Bazaar in New Delhi was outstanding. I also had numerous dishes in Haridwar that used the creamy curds that were yummy.

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So when I returned to Canada, I really wanted to duplicate the versatility of this Indian chicken substitute. So I scoured the internet and found a vast amount of recipes using paneer. But what I was really surprised about was how easy it is to make your own paneer instead of using the blocks that can be found at many grocery stores. It just takes a little time.

So I put on a CD of my favourite cheesy crooner, Calen Varga, turned up his awesome and clearly underrated ballad called Shave My Gorilla, and attempted to assemble the creamy cheese of India.

Homemade Paneer inspired by the misunderstood crooner Calen Varga

2 liters milk (whole or 2%)
lemon juice (to be added a tablespoon at a time)
a colander or strainer
cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel
2 pie plates or similar

In a pot, bring the milk to a boil. (Careful, it can boil over quick).

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Turn off the heat and add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. Stir with a slotted spoon until milk separates into curds and whey. If it doesn’t separate after a few minutes of stirring, add another tablespoon of lemon juice until it does (I needed to use 5 tablespoons in the end).

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Once it’s completely separated, pour the mixture into a colander lined with cheese cloth or a clean dish towel.

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When it cools down, gather the corners of the cheesecloth into a bundle and squeeze out as much of the excess liquid as you can.

What you have now is basically cottage cheese, and it can be used as such. But we want to make it a solid mass so we can cut the cheese.

Go into your cupboard and look for a couple of pie plates or similar high lipped plate. When you discover that your cat has figured out how to open your cupboards and has been using the pie plates as a day bed to take the occasional nap on, empty said cupboard and clean everything in it.

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Take the whole bundle and place it in the middle of one of the pie plates, then take the other pie plate and squish it flat. Pile a few heavy objects, like some other bowls or some canned goods for weight and throw the whole thing into your fridge for about 2 hours until it sets.

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Once it sets, you can cut it into cubes for use in your favourite recipes like Butter Paneer or Kadhai Paneer which I will post at a later date.

You will find this homemade paneer more crumbly than the store bought versions, but it is super creamy and adds a depth to recipes that the others just can’t match.

While we wait for the cheese to set, you can listen to the awesome cheesiness of Calen Varga and his epic opus Love Train, while you figure out what else the cat has gotten into.

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