A vegan Palak Paneer or Saag Paneer recipe that’s as good as anything you’d get at an Indian restaurant, perhaps even better. The spinach is creamy and spiced perfectly. Cubes of superfirm tofu make a healthier and delicious option for the vegan cheese, paneer, that’s typically used in this north Indian recipe. Eat with a naan or roti for the perfect Indian meal. A vegan, gluten-free recipe.
I first posted my vegan Palak Paneer with Tofu recipe for you back in 2008 — 10 years ago — when there were just a handful of vegan blogs and perhaps no other blog that posted Indian vegan recipes. The reason I rushed to veganize this perpetual Indian restaurant favorite is that it was one Indian dish I often ordered when I ate out before I became vegan and I certainly didn’t want to live without it.
Much has changed in the blogging world since, and you can probably find at least a couple dozen versions of vegan Palak Paneer or Saag Paneer (“saag” being the Hindi word for any leafy vegetable, “palak” is specifically spinach) recipes online. The way I make this recipe myself has changed somewhat over the years, so I wanted to update it for you.
Palak Paneer is by no means a difficult dish to veganize because it is almost vegan — other than the paneer, that is. In the past, I’d use firm tofu, pressed and then baked, in lieu of the paneer. But now I use superfirm tofu, which works even better as a paneer substitute. Tofu also comes minus the saturated fats and calories of paneer, so it is a better-for-you substitute.
My recipe is also as close as possible to an authentic, traditional Palak Paneer — other than the tofu and cashew cream to make it vegan. The ingredient list may seem a little long but it is not intimidating, and ingredients like the dry fenugreek leaves, although not an ingredient you’ll find in every pantry, add the flavor that you so love when you eat this dish at a restaurant. So it’s worth taking the trouble to find and use them.
The tofu “paneer” does a great job of absorbing the marinade and the flavors of the spinach. While some people fry the paneer before adding it to the spinach, and some don’t, I like to bake or, sometimes, shallow-fry the tofu. I think it improves the flavor even more, and it takes very little time and effort, so why not?
I used to marinate the tofu, as some of you who tried my earlier recipe would remember, but I don’t do that anymore. I think the tofu is just as flavorful without that additional step, and why create more work? Paneer is also not typically marinated before use in this recipe, so this brings us closer to the original.
Making this vegan Palak Paneer is extraordinarily easy– there really is no way you can mess it up, even if you haven’t cooked Indian food before.
Here are some tips to ensure your vegan Palak Paneer turns out just as perfect as can be. And how you can make it even faster:
-Make sure you saute the onions to the point where they turn golden. You want the onions to melt into the sauce when your dish is done, and leaving them half-cooked at the outset will not give you that silken, rich gravy.
-You don’t need to use fresh spinach for this recipe, because frozen works just as well. In fact, I prefer it because I can more easily find frozen organic spinach at the supermarket, than fresh organic spinach.
-You can use extra firm tofu if you can’t find superfirm tofu. Make sure you press as much liquid as you can out of it and then bake.
-You will find recipes out there for vegan Palak Paneer with a shorter ingredient list, but if you want a recipe that tastes authentic, take the trouble to find the ingredients and use them. Compromising on the ingredients might give you a decent Palak Paneer, but it won’t be amazing, and why would you settle for something decent when you can have something amazing?
-Whatever you do, don’t use coconut milk to substitute for the cashew cream in your Palak Paneer. Coconut is not an ingredient commonly used in North Indian kitchens, and coconut adds a strong flavor, even a small amount of it, which detracts completely from the recipe. If you want to go nut-free, leave out the cashew cream. Your dish will still taste great.
-If you don’t eat soy for any reason, leave out the tofu cubes and just make the spinach gravy. It tastes great on its own.
-Finally, serve this Palak Paneer with a tandoori roti or naan. Or, if you want to go gluten-free, serve it with some brown rice for a perfect, delicious meal.
Now go, make it. My Creamy Vegan Palak Paneer is vibrant, delectable, low in fat, and would stand up quite easily to its non-vegan counterpart on any restaurant menu. And what’s more, this dish really is good for you.
- 1 16-oz block of superfirm tofu, cut into six pieces
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 5 cloves
- 1-inch piece cinnamon
- 5 green cardamom pods
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
- 2 medium tomatoes, finely diced
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp cayenne (adjust up or down based on your taste)
- 1 tbsp coriander powder
- 1 tsp cumin powder
- 2 tsp garam masala
- 1 tbsp kasoori methi (dry fenugreek leaves). Optional, but I strongly recommend it.
- 16 oz frozen spinach, thawed and pureed (use two large bunches of fresh spinach if that's what you have. Blanche the spinach for a couple of minutes in boiling water and then puree)
- Salt to taste
- 2 tbsp cashew cream, optional but nice. (Make this by blending 1 tbsp raw cashews with 2-3 tbsp of water)
Spray a skillet with cooking spray. Place the slices of tofu on the skillet in a single layer and cook both sides until lightly golden. When cool, cut into a 1/2-inch dice. Set aside
Heat the oil. Add the cloves, cardamom and cinnamon and, when they start to color, add the cumin seeds. As they start to darken, add the onions and the garlic. Saute for a few minutes until the onions become golden-brown.
Add the ginger-garlic paste, saute for a couple of minutes, then add the tomatoes. Add the turmeric, cayenne, cumin and coriander powders and mix well. Cover and let the tomatoes cook until they are very soft and pulpy.
Add the kasoori methi, if using, and mix well. Add the spinach puree, mix, and let the sauce come to a boil. Lower the heat and continue cooking the spinach for 10 minutes. Add some vegetable stock or water if it looks too thick, but don't add too much liquid at this point-- you want the spinach to cook thoroughly and lose any raw flavor.
Add the garam masala, cubes of tofu and salt. Mix well and let it all simmer another two minutes.
Turn off the heat and add the cashew paste, if using. The cashew paste adds a rich, luxurious finish, but if you want a nut-free recipe, it's completely optional.
Serve hot or warm with naan or roti.