My aunt, Akka, an adventurous and intrepid cook, would often experiment with recipes from around India, usually with delicious results. It was at her home that Malai Kofta, a north Indian specialty, became firmly intertwined with my childhood memories of special-occasion food.
Each year, for Diwali, Akka would host a big dinner for the extended family. It was an occasion to look forward to, not just because you were guaranteed lots of fun without family histrionics (Akka was my Dad's eldest sister, something of a mother figure for everyone in the family, and no one dared raise a voice in her presence), but also because Akka was an extraordinarily gifted cook. You could be sure that you'd return home that night with a smile on your face, lots of happy new memories, and a bloated belly.
Akka's menu for that dinner varied each year, but one recipe you could count on her to make year after year because of the popularity it enjoyed in our family was her Malai Kofta curry.
This was a dazzling dish, with deep-fried, delicate balls of cheese floating in a subtly but expertly spiced creamy and orange-gold sauce. It tasted like nothing else we were used to eating at home, and it tasted extraordinarily good.
Koftas can be loosely described as meatballs, and they are often made with lamb or beef or chicken meat in India, although vegetarian versions are just as -- or perhaps more -- popular.
Koftas are not a concept native to India. Rather, like other popular Indian dishes like Biryani, Samosa, Gulab Jamun and Navratan Korma, which have heavy central Asian and Persian influences, koftas originated in the kitchens of the Mughals, Muslim invaders from central Asia who went on to rule a large part of northern India for nearly two centuries.
The Mughals were gone from India by the 19th century, but the food they popularized had already permeated and mingled with local north Indian cuisine, and it stayed put. Today, most of us can eat these dishes, including Malai Kofta, anywhere in the world there is a north Indian restaurant.
Unless you're vegan. That's because two key ingredients in a malai kofta are malai, or cream (although in this case what's actually used is khoya, a thick reduction of milk), and paneer, a cheese made with cow or buffalo milk, which pretty much puts any restaurant version out of our reach.
That's why, for you today, I have the most amazing vegan Malai Kofta curry recipe. Every bite of this decadent dish is packed with flavor and no one will even be able to tell this is vegan.
I had already shared this malai kofta with you more than a decade ago, and many of you have made it over the years and loved it. At the time I called it a "tofu kofta curry" because who knew about keywords and the terms people search for in those early days of blogging? I've since further improved on it, and modified the recipe to make it quicker, so bringing it back to the top. Hope you will continue to enjoy it and make it in your kitchens.
Tips for making the best vegan malai kofta
- Malai kofta, despite its name, usually doesn't contain malai or cream. You need the ingredients to not be fluid because they have to hold together in a ball firm enough to fry, so Indian cooks usually use khoya. To make khoya, milk is reduced until all of the liquid is gone and all that remains is the thick milk solids. Paneer and a small amount of potato is added into the khoya to make the kofta balls. For our vegan version, I sub the paneer with tofu, the khoya with cashews, and thank heavens a potato is vegan.
- This is a recipe designed for royalty, so the flavors here have to be just right -- not too spicy, not too overbearing, but delicate and voluptuous at the same time. So don't go overboard with the quantity of spices.
- You want all of the ingredients in the kofta balls to be really, really creamy while remaining solid, so the first rule is to make sure everything is broken down really fine without using any water. I grate the tofu and then give it a turn in the food processor to make sure it's as smooth as possible. I really recommend using super firm tofu or high protein tofu for this dish if possible. Extra firm tofu is not as desirable, but if it's your only option, make sure you drain out most of the water in it.
- You will need to process the raw cashews into a really fine powder, again without any water. The cashews help add richness to the kofta balls, the richness that the khoya would bring, so try not to skip them. But if you're nut-free, you can leave them out.
- You need a very small amount of potatoes in the kofta balls, because the potato is simply there to bind, not to be the main flavor. Too much potato will simply leave you with a dish of potato vadas floating in the curry, and that's not what you're going for. Use one medium potato, boiled and peeled, for this dish. You also don't need too much cornstarch or tapioca starch, depending on which one you're using. You want these balls to be creamy, not doughy, and the starch, like the potato, is just a binder.
- After adding the spices and cornstarch, the kofta balls should hold together firmly and shouldn't fall apart when you add them to the oil. Fry one ball first to make sure it holds, but if it doesn't, add more cornstarch and proceed.
- Koftas are often stuffed with a little surprise inside, like nuts or raisins. I added raisins because I like the bit of sweetness here, but if you want to add nuts, use chopped pistachios and/or cashews and you can certainly add both nuts and raisins.
- If deep frying scares you, you could put your kofta balls in an air fryer or the oven, but you won't get the same great crust or the flavor. My advise is to deep fry and eat in moderation. This is by no means an unhealthy recipe and it's filling, so I doubt you'll want to eat all of it at one go.
- The curry sauce that goes with the kofta is really simple to make, and it comes together quickly. You will need to process the sauce in the blender to make it really creamy, and then strain it for best results, although the straining is by no means mandatory.
- I like the sauce thick here, but you can thin it out to your liking and for an even smoother texture. Use water to thin it out.
- The creaminess of the sauce comes from cashews and pumpkin seeds, which are both traditionally used in India. These also take away the need to add any cream to the sauce. Unless you're nut-free and absolutely can't use cashews, I'd recommend not adding coconut milk to the sauce. That's because even when we veganize, we want to keep flavors as close as possible to the real thing. You've heard me say this before time and again, but here it is again: coconut milk and north Indian cuisine simply do not mix. Coconut is delicious in south Indian and western Indian food, where it is widely used, but it has too strong a flavor and it tends to obscure the true taste of North Indian dishes. Cashew cream, on the other hand, substitutes perfectly for cream in Mughlai food.
What to serve with vegan malai kofta
Malai kofta goes beautifully with an Indian tandoor bread, like a naan or roti.
Ingredients for vegan malai kofta
For the kofta:
- Super firm tofu or high protein tofu
- Cornstarch or tapioca starch
- Green chili peppers, like serrano or jalapeno
For the creamy, spiced orange sauce:
- Green cardamom
- Pumpkin seeds
- Garam masala
- Kasoori methi (dry fenugreek leaves)
- Salt to taste
Looking for more Indian vegan restaurant-style recipes?
- Vegan Palak Paneer with Tofu
- Mushroom Matar, Mushrooms and Peas in a Creamy Sauce
- Malai Gobi, a creamy cauliflower curry
- Vegetable Biryani in 30 minutes
- Vegan Paneer Butter Masala
Vegan Malai Kofta, Indian Dumplings in a Creamy Tomato Onion Curry
For the vegan malai kofta:
- 16 oz super firm tofu (also called high protein tofu. Grate the tofu and then pulse five to six times in a food processor)
- ½ cup raw cashews (make a very fine powder in a blender or food processor without adding any water)
- 1 medium potato (boiled, peeled and grated)
- 1 green chili pepper (like serrano or jalapeno. Deseed for less heat and mince really fine. Add more or less based on your personal preference)
- 1 tsp ginger (grated fine)
- 2 tbsp cornstarch (or tapioca starch)
- Salt to taste
- 32 golden raisins (optional, for stuffing the kofta dumplings. You can also use finely chopped nuts like pistachios or cashews)
- Vegetable oil for deep frying You need enough oil to immerse the balls, which are about 1.25 inches in diameter.
For the tomato-onion creamy curry:
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 3 green cardamom pods
- 3 cloves
- ½ inch stick cinnamom
- 1 large yellow onion
- 3 cloves garlic (minced or crushed into a paste)
- ½ inch piece ginger (finely grated or minced)
- ¼ tsp turmeric
- ½ tsp cayenne (use more or less based on your personal preference)
- ½ tsp coriander powder
- 3 medium tomatoes (finely chopped)
- ½ cup raw cashews
- ¼ cup pumpkin seeds
- 2 tbsp kasoori methi (dry fenugreek leaves, crushed in your palms)
- ½ tsp garam masala powder
- 1 tsp sugar (optional)
- 2 tbsp cilantro (chopped, for garnish)
Make the kofta:
- Place the tofu, cashews, potatoes, cornstarch, minced chili peppers, ginger and salt in a bowl and knead until the dough holds together. The dough will be soft but it will hold together. Form 16 smooth balls with the dough. If you're stuffing raisins into the kofta dumplings, flatten the dough first in your palm a little, place two raisins in the middle, then shape into a ball.
- Heat oil in a small wok or saucepan, until a small piece of the kofta dough added to the oil sizzles immediately and rises to the top. Deep fry the kofta balls in batches on a medium flame until they are deep golden on the outside.
- Place the kofta balls in a large serving bowl.
Make the curry sauce:
- Heat oil in a saucepan. Add the cardamom, cloves and cinnamon
- Add the onions and saute until the onions are soft and just beginning to turn color.
- Add the ginger and garlic, saute for no more than 30 seconds, then add in the turmeric, cayenne and coriander powders. Stir to mix.
- Add the tomatoes and cook until the tomatoes are pulpy and broken down, then add in the cashew nuts, pumpkin seeds and kasoori methi and mix well. Turn off the heat.
- Remove the entire mixture to the blender, add two cups of cold water and process to a really smooth paste.
- This step is optional, but you can strain the sauce at this point for a really smooth texture.
- Add the sauce back to the pan and bring it back to a boil over low heat. If it's too thick to your liking, dilute with more water. Mix in the garam masala and add salt. Stir in the sugar if using, and turn off the heat.
- Pour the hot sauce over the kofta balls, and serve immediately.