Growing up, Paneer Butter Masala was my favourite thing to order in restaurants. The oily, creamer texture was something never made in homes for obvious reasons, so naturally, that is what I wanted to eat then. Fast forward to the present and I like spicier curries, not necessarily heavy on garam masala, but with more flavours than just cream, tomato and sugar. But Indian restaurants are a funny phenomenon if you ask me: every restaurant will serve a Kadhai Paneer or a Paneer Butter Masala, that is different from the next one in colour or in texture or in taste, or if your luck is particularly worse on that day, all of the above. So, now my bench mark for North Indian gravies is set on on a particularly nondescript place in Hyderabad, rather than what the high-end restaurants serve. For the brief spell of eight months that I stayed in Hyderabad as a newly wed, I had a chance to eat a tiny, 2 room eatery called Delhi 39. It had exactly 4 tables and 16 chairs and nothing else, so I guess I don’t have to explain the ambience. But
For the brief spell of eight months that I stayed in Hyderabad as a newly wed, I had a chance to eat a tiny, 2 room eatery called Delhi 39. It had exactly 4 tables and 16 chairs and nothing else, so I guess I don’t have to explain the ambience. But food was amazing, the fulkas ( sorry, no tandoori bread here ) as soft and round and puffy as home made, the curries tasted like they were from a North Indian friends Lunch box ( Rajma was sublime and paneer curries are the best I have tasted!! ) and the paranthas, simply the best paranthas ever. The curries were priced between 45-65 rupees, ( not kidding!! ) and well, that is what I want now whenever I feel like eating north Indian fare. Sadly we moved to Bangalore then, and even the famed Manjit da Dhaba hasn’t been able to match that.
Then I bought a second-hand copy of Jiggs Kalra’s cookbook, Prashad – Cooking with Indian Masters, and it is a revelation. I have been making North Indian curries from it, with a few modifications and they are the real deal (well, at least for me! ) My kind of Kadhai Paneer is not smooth and with a lot of gravy, unlike Paneer Butter Masala, the spice mix is coarsely ground with bits of whole coriander and fennel lingering around to make their presence felt and even the tomatoes have a slightly coarse texture to them. That and a moderate amount of spices with no cream or milk or anything sweet whatsoever makes my kind of Kadai Paneer. So, here is the recipe for the same.
A few disclaimers that I want to make first are as follows. The recipe is from Jiggs Kalra’s book Prashād. I do not claim that my recipe is the “authentic” one. But this is pretty much what Kadhai Paneer from my favourite restaurants taste, so I have documented the particular successful attempt and follow it every time I crave restaurant style Kadhai Paneer. Mine is a heavily modified recipe in comparison to the one in the cookbook, in terms of the method especially, because I don’t like going through a lot of slow cooking. The original recipe makes a Kadhai gravy first and then makes the actual curry with additional spices. I have cut down those steps. Also, this is a spice heavy curry, so please use your discretion to cut down the spices, which may / may not alter the taste. I, for example, don’t use cinnamon and cardamom in the spice mix for this curry. The colour of the gravy will depend on the chilli powder you use, and I always use Kashmiri Chilli Powder for that reason.
Recipe: ( Adapted from Jiggs Kalra’s cookbook Prashād, serves 2 )
- 200 gms, Paneer, soaked in warm water for 10 mins and chopped into 1″ chunks, cut them as large as you enjoy them. For example, I like paneer in smaller pieces in creamy rich curries like Paneer Butter Masala, but as larger, meatier chunks for spicy curries.
- 3 tbsp ghee, ( I prefer using 2 tbsp ghee + 1 tbsp of butter ),
- 1 large capsicum, cut into chunks, almost the same dimensions as paneer,
- 1 medium onion, quartered and separated into layers,
- 2 large tomatoes, blended to a smooth paste,
- 2 tsp of Kashmiri chilli powder OR ( as mentioned in the referred recipe ) 3-4 nos whole red chillies, ( this varies from person to person, so feel free to adjust red chillis, I prefer to use milder variety ),
- 2 tsp of coriander seeds,
- 2 tsp of cumin seeds,
- 1 tsp of fennel seeds, ( optional, not mentioned in the referred recipe ),
- 1/2 inch piece of ginger,
- 2-3 garlic cloves, ( optional, not mentioned in the referred recipe ),
- 2 pepper corns OR a few pinches of black pepper powder, ( optional, not mentioned in the referred recipe ),
- salt to taste,
- 1 tsp of Kasuri Methi,
- fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped, for garnish.
- In a small. heavy bottomed pan, dry roast the following spices: coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, pepper corns, and red chillies. ( If you are using powders of any these spices, for convenience, add them to the pan after you have turned the heat off and taken the pan off the stove. Mix them with whole spices and let the powders warm up in the residual heat) Roast these on a low heat, stirring intermittently making sure they don’t burn or blacken until they are all fragrant. Once they get aromatic, remove them from heat and let them cool down.
- Once they cool down, take all the whole spices in a small wet grinder jar, along with ginger, garlic, a little salt ( about half the amount you generally use ), 2 tbsp of water, and a few drops of oil ( optional, but I feel it gives me a smoother paste.) Blend it to a paste which is not coarse and not smooth, or in other words, just short of smooth. You can go ahead and grind it smooth too if you don’t like the coarse mouth feel of coriander and fennel seeds, but I like the coarse texture of it in the spices and grind it just short of a smooth paste. refer the texture of the gravy above. Alternately you can hand pound this or stone grind it if you feel that gives you a better control of the texture, but it is a little time-consuming.
- You can avoid a little washing up if you used the same unwashed grinder jar to grind the tomatoes.
- Once you have the tomato paste and the spice paste ready, heat the oil/ghee in a pan, and once a little hot ( NOT SMOKING, we don’t want to burn our spices ), add the spice paste. Cook on a low heat for a minute, stirring constantly.
- Once the oil/ghee has extracted some of the flavours from the paste and turns a nice bright red, add the capsicum and the onion chunks. Mix well and cook for 2-3 minutes until the onion layers turn translucent.
- Add the tomato paste and mix well. Cook on a low flame, stirring intermittently, till the tomatoes are fully cooked and the whole mix starts leaving oil on the sides of the pan. If you feel that it has gotten too dry, a tbsp or 2 of water midway. This takes about 10-12 minutes at the least and you can do it with a lid on if you find that the tomato paste is splattering a lot.
- Adjust the salt to taste and mix well. Finally, add paneer chunks, mix them gently with the spices and tomatoes, taking care not to break them. Cook for a minute or two, add the Kasuri Methi ( after crushing it lightly between your palms ), mix and turn the heat off. Let it sit for a few minutes before serving. Serve with the flatbread of your choice.