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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Add the pureed tomatoes and fry for 10 minutes until the oils begin to separate.
Add the cubed bell pepper, fenugreek leaves, and salt. Fry for 2-3 mins, until the bell pepper is cooked but still crunchy.
Add the cooked paneer cubes and mix gently until well combined. Simmer for 2 mins and remove from heat.
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.
1 From Wikipedia so it must be right.