Food is about so much more than nutrition—it’s one of the most personal expressions of our cultures, values, and traditions. Our series, Behind the Recipe, profiles a different healthy cook every month to explore the personal, untold stories of their favorite dishes. This month, Meera Sodha, whose latest cookbook, East, is out now, shares the story behind her chili tofu, inspired by her childhood.
The very first time I ever had chili paneer was on Melton Road in Leicester with my parents and sister. I hated traveling to this particular road when I was a child because it meant being dragged around to sari shops for hours on end. The only plausible way to suffer through it was to cause chaos in the shops by pulling the saris off their hangers and playing hide and seek until we could go to one of the cafes for a bite to eat and a carton of extraordinarily sweet mango juice.
On one particular excursion, we stopped at a little restaurant after seemingly endless hours of shopping. My parents, who are Ugandan Indian, ordered chili paneer. Chili paneer is Indo-Chinese in origin, a fairly new cuisine that has found its way into the heart and bellies of many Indians. I remember loving it from the very first taste. It was sweet, hot, salty, crunchy, and chewy—all at once. It’s impossible not to love it once you’ve first tried it.
When I got a bit older, chili paneer was a meal I cooked with my mum at home, and then later, I started making it myself. The more I got interested in cooking, the more I started to appreciate my own grown-up shopping trips to Leicester. What I love most are the spices. Spice shopping in Leicester is an experience to behold! Every meter you walk down the spice aisle, you’re confronted with a different color and smell. Some spices are so full of character, like fenugreek, that even touching a packet of it leaves you with a lingering smell. I’m excited to be able to navigate a shop via my nose and my boredom has transformed into joy at the possible opportunities that might arise from a trip.
My own personal take is an amalgamation of my family's personal recipe and one I ate at a cafe in Leicester several years ago that I absolutely loved—which I then gave a vegan twist. I use tofu instead of paneer, fried until crisp, then doused in garlic, chilies, tomato, soy, and sugar until it's sticky, hot, sweet, and sour. Cooking tofu can be tricky. I remember reading about a technique used in China to give tofu a crisp exterior by coating it in potato starch before frying—it gives the tofu a crisp thick coating which absorbs sauces very well—and decided to test it out using cornflour, which is more often used in the West.
Every time I make this dish, it's very meaningful to me. Most of my food memories are connected to mum and the stories she told me of our family in Uganda and India. But this recipe will always be linked to a very happy memory sat in the car tussling over a portion with dad.
Meera Sodha's chili tofu recipe
1 3/4 lbs firm tofu, dried and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tsp cumin seeds, coarsely ground
1 onion, diced
6 cloves of garlic, crushed
1-inch ginger, peeled and grated
4 green finger (or serrano) chilies: 2 very finely chopped, 2 slit down their length
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
2 Tbsp tomato paste
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt
2 bell peppers (1 red and 1 green, ideally), cut into 1/2-inch slices
1. Spread the tofu cubes on a large plate and dust with cornstarch, turning them to coat. Take a deep frying pan with a lid, add enough oil to come to a fourth-inch up the sides, and heat over a medium flame. Line a plate with paper towels, to place the fried tofu on.
2. Shake any excess cornstarch off the tofu, then put half the tofu on the hot oil. Fry for three minutes, turning regularly with tongs, until golden, then transfer to the paper-lined plate and repeat with the remaining tofu.
3. Drain all but two tablespoons of the oil from the pan, then fry the cumin and onion for 10 to 12 minutes, until soft and sweet. Add the garlic, ginger, and chilies, fry for 5 minutes, then add the pepper, tomato paste, soy sauce, sugar, and salt. Stir to mix, cook for 5 minutes, then add the bell pepper strips and a third cup of water. Cover and leave to cook for 8 minutes, stirring every now and then, and then adding more water. Cover and leave to cook for eight more minutes, stirring every now and then, and adding more water if need be: there should be enough "sauce" to coat the tofu.
4. When the peppers are soft, return the tofu to the pan, turn the heat up, and stir to coat the tofu in the sauce. Stir-fry for five minutes, then take off the heat.
5. Serve by itself if you're Indian, or with chapattis, greens, or a leafy salad if you're not.
Recipe courtesy of East. Copyright © 2020 by Meera Sodha. Published by Flatiron Books.
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