Meatless Monday: Spicy Indian tofu curry

Do something different for dinner with tofu curry. Get adventurous with authentic Indian spices like garam masala and Asafetida, and learn to swap the curry powder for a homemade curry paste.

Blue Kitchen
Explore new flavors and spices with this vegan curry dish. Serve it as a main course, or just one dish in an Indian feast.

We’re not big on new year’s resolutions at Blue Kitchen. There’s something so rigid and formal about "resolving" to do something: “Be it hereby resolved that….” But there are things that we talk about doing, directions we talk about taking. The first post of the new year seems like a good place to explore a couple of them.

One is something we’ve actually been doing for a while – eating less meat. The other is getting into cooking more Indian food at home. This simple, spicy, big-flavored tofu curry let me do both.

The recipe is adapted from "Vegan Indian Cooking: 140 Simple and Healthy Vegan Recipes" (2012) by Anupy Singla. Published by the Agate Surrey imprint, the cookbook contains background on Indian cuisine and helpful tips on spices, spice blends and shortcuts. A former TV news journalist, Anupy has turned full time to sharing Indian cuisine with the world. Her first cookbook, "The Indian Slow Cooker," has been the No. 1 best selling Indian cookbook on Amazon since its release in 2010.

A vegan, Anupy cooks with oils rather than ghee, the clarified butter used by many Indian home cooks and professional chefs. There arguments for the health benefits of each approach, but she likes the lighter flavor and lower saturated fat content she gets cooking with oils. She also cooks with spices. Lots of them. She points out that spices don’t always equal heat; sometimes they just produce big flavors.

Sometimes, though, as with this tofu curry, the heat is plentiful. And this was even with me toning it down for our Western palates. It was also wonderfully authentic. One reason is that, as you look over the ingredients, you’ll note that while curry is in the name, curry powder isn’t on the list. Like most Indian cooks, Anupy never uses curry powder. In India, the term curry is generally used to to refer to a dish that has broth or a sauce, as opposed to dry dishes. Those sauces vary from dish to dish and family to family.

Curry powder, it turns out, was created by Brits to mimic the tastes and smells of cuisines they’d sampled while visiting or living in India. That said, prepared curry powders have become quite popular and are now found in kitchens around the world (including ours, I must admit). By following Anupy’s lead and leaving the curry powder in the pantry for this dish, I ended up with big, bold flavors that didn’t taste kind of Indian or Indian-inspired, but Indian.

Tofu curry
Makes about 2 cups

1 12-to-14-ounce package extra firm tofu

 3 teaspoons garam masala, divided (see Kitchen Notes)

4 tablespoons canola oil, divided

1 small yellow onion, peeled and quartered

1 2-inch piece ginger root, peeled and chopped

5 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped

1 medium tomato, quartered

2 Serrano chiles, stemmed and halved

1 cup plain yogurt (see Kitchen Notes)

1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon asafetida (see Kitchen Notes)

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 2-inch cinnamon stick

2 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed

2 whole cloves

1/2 cup water

cooked rice

chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

Prepare the tofu. Cut the tofu block crosswise into 1/2-inch slices, then cut those into bite-sized pieces; I cut mine into thirds. Gently lay them in a single layer on a plate covered with a double layer of paper towels. Gently press another double layer of paper towels on top of the tofu (you’ll notice I use the word gently a lot in discussing handling the tofu – it’s fragile). This will remove a lot of the moisture in the tofu and make it easier to sauté. Let the tofu drain for at least 15 minutes.

Season the tofu pieces on both sides with 1 teaspoon of garam masala. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium flame for at least 90 seconds. Sauté the tofu in batches – overcrowding the pan will make it difficult to handle without breaking – gently turning with a spatula and a wooden spoon occasionally until browned on the edges, about 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Prepare the curry. While the tofu is draining, place the onion, ginger, garlic, tomato and chiles in a food processor bowl. Process into a smooth, slightly watery paste, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula as needed. Transfer mixture to a bowl. Add yogurt, salt, remaining 2 teaspoons of garam masala and cayenne pepper. Stir well to combine.

When tofu has been sautéed, heat remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large, heavy pot (I used a Dutch oven) over medium flame. Add asafetida, cumin seeds, turmeric, cinnamon stick, cardamom pods and cloves. Cook, stirring for 30 seconds. Add yogurt mixture and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until the sauce thickens slightly.

Remove cinnamon stick and cardamom pods (and cloves, if you can find them – if not, apologize in advance). Add tofu to the pot, stirring (yes, gently) to coat with sauce. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat.

Serve. There are a couple of options. We treated this as a main course, and I plated individual servings over cooked rice, garnishing with cilantro. It can also be passed around as one dish in a larger meal; Place it in a serving bowl and garnish with cilantro. It can be passed around the table with rice and other dishes.

Kitchen Notes

Spices, Indian and otherwise. The list of spices for this recipe is impressive, I’ll admit. But most should be fairly easily found either in supermarkets or specialty shops. Garam masala is a ground spice blend used in North Indian cooking. If you can’t track it down, you’ll find a recipe for a simplified version here. Asafetida is unpromisingly also known as devil’s dung or stinking gum. Raw, it has an unpleasant odor, but when cooked into food, it adds a delicious mild onion/garlic flavor – it’s featured in lots of Indian cooking. If you can’t find it, this dish already has plenty of onion and garlic in it.

Go vegan with soy yogurt. Anupy’s original recipe calls for soy yogurt. I used regular plain yogurt instead for a vegetarian but non-vegan version. Either works just fine.

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