It was a sultry summer’s day in Bombay when Desi and I went to the courthouse to apply for our marriage license. After a long wait in the line (yes, many other couples had the same idea), we were tired and hungry and stopped for lunch at a small but charming restaurant nearby.
It was the first time I ate Patia (paa-tee-yaa), a dish that’s usually made with prawns (a shrimp-like shellfish).
The next day, I was sick as a dog. The prawns, I knew, were responsible, but it was too late. I was already in love with this delicious dish with its sweet, sour and spicy flavors. So instead of risking my stomach at that restaurant again, I learned to cook it myself. And once I did, I couldn’t stop making it.
After turning vegan, I have been trying to recreate versions of my favorite meat and seafood dishes with vegan substitutes. The dish I want to share today, Tofu Patia, is a perfect example of how it is very possible to veganize dishes where we often believe meat (or seafood) are absolutely indispensable.
Patia is a staple of the fascinating cuisine of the Parsi community of India.
Although they are a small drop in this billion-strong country’s melting pot of cultures, the Parsis– who are said to have migrated to India from Persia 1,000 years ago– are also among its most interesting residents. They are often described in cliches: super-rich, inscrutable, tight-knit, eccentric…there’s some truth in all of that. Over the years I have met and made many wonderful Parsi friends, but my memory is dominated by a willowy, green-eyed, brown-haired friend named Lyla who once went to a really seedy strip club in South Bombay because, she said, how else would she know what goes on in there? For company, she took her aging mother and aunt.
The next day she related, deadpan, a colorful account of the dancers, exactly what they did, the audience, and their reaction.
Parsi cuisine is just as delightful, and extremely delicious, but it is not something I’ve ever seen in Indian restaurants here, partly because the restaurants here are predominantly run by North Indians, and in some cases South Indians, who largely serve cuisine from their part of the country.
But Indian regional cuisine varies greatly from state to state and sometimes even within different communities in a single state. Parsis first settled in Gujarat, a state in west India, and their food is an amalgamation of Gujarati cuisine and their Persian roots.
Like other dishes served by Parsis, Patia sparkles with vibrant flavors. There’s the sour note added by tomatoes and lemon, the sweetness of coconut milk and jaggery (an unrefined Indian sugar), and the spiciness of red chilli powder.
Given all these rich flavors, I was pretty certain that I wouldn’t miss the prawns in a vegan version. But because I wanted to throw in some protein muscle, I added some marinated, baked tofu.
I was really thrilled with the result. My vegan patia had the same flavors as the seafood version (minus the fishy smell– now who would miss that?), and the tofu, baked to slight chewiness but creamy in the center, was just perfect.
1 block extra-firm tofu. Swaddle in paper napkins or in cheesecloth, place in a colander, and place something heavy on top, like a cast-iron pan. Let the water drain out of the tofu for at least an hour.
Now stand the tofu on the side and slice so you have two slices of the same width as the whole block but only half the thickness.
In a baking pan large enough to hold the two slices of tofu side by side, mix 1 tsp vegetable oil + 1/4 tsp turmeric + 1/2 tsp red chilli powder + salt to taste.
Place the tofu in the pan and turn over to coat with the turmeric-chilli-oil mixture.
Bake in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes until slightly chewy on the outside but creamy on the inside.
Place in a blender and blend:
1 cup coconut milk
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp grated ginger
2 dry red chillies
In a skillet or saucepan, heat 1/2 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
Add 1 large onion, finely diced
Saute, stirring frequently, until browned.
1 tbsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
Stir for a minute and then add the coconut milk mixture. Cook on a slow flame about five minutes.
Cut each slice of the baked tofu into four long strips, and then cut each strip into four pieces to get a dice of about 1/2 inch.
Add to the saucepan and stir in.
Add 3 diced tomatoes, cover, and cook until the tomatoes are fairly soft.
Add 1 tbsp jaggery (can substitute with sugar) and juice of 1 lemon. Check salt.
Garnish with some chopped mint or coriander.
I love tofu patia with plain boiled rice, but I am sure a good bread would taste great dunked into this too.