Cheesy peas – dairy free (Matar Paneer)

One of the first curries my children took to was Matar Paneer – or cheesy peas as we called them. It’s fairly sweet, not too spicy with two clearly recognisable ingredients – cheese and peas. It was something the children could really identify and enjoy.

Our local curry house made a beautiful matar paneer; once I embarked on my dairy free quest, it was a matter of watching the others devour this delicious dish with it’s rich creamy sauce – no more cheesy peas for me, or so I thought!

Matar paneer is one of those dishes that has been seriously anglo-philed. During our time in India, I realised that the Indian version has a much deeper, richer flavour than the one on offer at our local Tandoori, with very little sauce and definitely no cream. In fact this was one of the main differences we found between Indian and English curries – the Brits do like a lot of sauce!

Apart from the cheese and the peas, one of the key ingredients for matar paneer is ghee, or clarified butter. Theoretically it’s dairy free; the protein and lactose molecules are separated from the fat itself in the clarifying process. But modern manufacturing methods have altered the quality and purity of mass produced ghee. I’ve certainly ended up with a migraine after inadvertently consuming it, so I tend to steer clear, which is a shame, as the ghee gives the dish a rich, luxuriant flavour.

For the cheese, I use extra firm tofu, well squeezed. This was easier in India as you could actually buy tofu paneer, it’s texture and taste pretty close to the real thing. I’ve not seen this back in the UK. To make tofu suitable for frying, you need to remove it from it’s packet and drain away the fluid. Place some kitchen roll on a plate, put the tofu block on top and cover it with more kitchen roll. Then put another plate on the top with some kind of weight – a jam jar for example – and leave in the fridge for a few hours. If your tofu is really wet, you may want to change the kitchen roll after a couple of hours. And use a large plate on the bottom otherwise tofu water drips everywhere!! You should end up with firm, dryish tofu ready to fry.

Vegetable oil replaces ghee – you need to heat the pan up pretty high before popping in the tofu to brown (another reason for getting rid of excess water). Leave it in the pan long enough to get a firm crispiness before turning it, as this adds to the texture of the dish. I tend to use much less oil than many recipes or restaurants – having a dish served with a puddle of fat lying on top just puts me off!

Dairy Free Matar Paneer
225g pack of extra firm tofu, drained
1 tablespoon oil
1 medium onion, chopped
200g peas, fresh or frozen
chillis or chilli powder**
5cm fresh ginger, grated
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon ground coriander
fresh coriander (to serve)
Make sure your tofu is drained and pressed (as above). Heat the oil in a pan and fry the tofu on all sides until brown and crispy. Remove from the pan and put to one side whilst you fry the onion until soft and slightly browned – you may need to add a little more oil and/or turn the heat down a bit. Then add about 5 tablespoons or so of hot water and a pinch of salt and the peas. Stir well, turn down the heat, pop on a lid and cook for 5 minutes until the peas are nearly cooked. Add the browned tofu, ginger and ground coriander and simmer for a few minutes, stirring gently. Add a little more water if you want a saucier dish. Stir in the garam masala and fresh coriander, taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Serve with warm chapati or roti and enjoy!

** Chilli. You can use fresh chillis or chilli powder for this dish. I haven’t put an amount as it depends on how spicy you want it to be. I tend to use one medium sized fresh green chilli or a flat teaspoon of chilli powder. This gives it flavour without much kick. Use more, or less, according to your taste – you can always add more if necessary

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