Here’s a garlicky, spicy, mindblowingly delicious Indian dish that’ll have your tastebuds doing a happy dance: Tofu “Paneer” 65. Crispy bits of air-fried or baked tofu are dunked into an appetizing, tasty curry of yogurt and mixed spices. You can eat it for a snack or scoop it up with an Indian flatbread like naan or roti. A vegan, gluten-free recipe.
If you putter around long enough in the world of Indian restaurant dining, you’ll sooner or later run into a group of dishes with the mysterious suffix of “65”: paneer 65, chicken 65, mushroom 65 and mutton 65 among them.
The first thing you’d want to know, of course, is why 65?
There are many stories out there but no real confirmation about what that 65 represents–although most accounts agree that it was the chicken that came first.
Some say chicken 65 was first invented at a south Indian restaurant in the year 1965. Another story goes that there were 65 ingredients in the recipe (there aren’t). And yet another, and perhaps the most plausible, is that the dish featured at #65 on the numbered menu of a popular restaurant.
But instead of running around in circles trying to figure out the name, let’s get down to brass tacks. All you need to really know, in the end, that this is an amazing dish. As in, it’s amazingly delicious.
The sauce is a mad mix of flavors, but the overriding ones are spicy and tangy. I moderated the heat, but you can use more or less of the spicy ingredients, like green chili peppers, cayenne and black pepper according to your taste.
The technique for cooking this dish also makes it rather unusual. You stir-fry the veggies, and some of the ingredients–although not all–are what you’d typically use in Indo-Chinese cooking. And yet this is not an Indo-Chinese dish; it’s really, quite uniquely Indian.
My vegan version of Tofu “Paneer” 65 is healthier, because I don’t deep-fry the tofu, as you would the paneer. Instead, I air fry it, although you can also certainly bake it if you don’t have an air fryer.
Try it soon, and come back to tell me all about it!
The tofu needs to be cooked first, and usually you’d be frying the tofu–or rather the paneer– after coating it with a batter of herbs and spices and flour. We’ll give the tofu the exact same treatment, except, instead of dunking it into hot oil, we’ll air-fry it (or you can bake it). That will make it crispy without the extra fat, and it’ll taste just as good folded into the sauce.
Super firm tofu works best for this, but if you can’t find it, use extra firm tofu and squeeze out all the water you can before cutting it into cubes.
If your air fryer is anything like mine, you’ll likely need to do the air frying in two batches. Set the air fryer to 400 degrees and air fry for 12-14 minutes, turning over once halfway through to ensure they fry evenly.
You can bake the pakoras in a hot, 450-degree oven for 25-30 minutes, on a parchment or silpat lined baking sheet, flipping over once halfway through.
To make the sauce, you will need to work with a hot wok. Keep all ingredients handy. Chop the onions and bell peppers into large cubes, about 3/4ths inches, and separate the onion cubes into separate layers before adding to the oil.
This is a garlicky sauce, so you’ll add garlic at two stages. To the coating for the tofu, and then a big handful to the sauce.
Yogurt is a key ingredient in this recipe. I use my homemade cashew yogurt, but you can easily use unflavored store-bought yogurt.
Curry leaves are a uniquely south Indian ingredient and they play a big role in flavoring this tofu 65. I wouldn’t skip them, but if you absolutely cannot find them, use cilantro.
Vegan Tofu “Paneer” 65 recipe
Vegan Tofu “Paneer” 65
- Air fryer or baking sheet
For the crispy tofu:
- 14 oz tofu (super firm or extra firm. If using extra firm, squeeze out as much water as you can. Cut into 1/2-inch cubes)
- 1 sprig curry leaves (about 10-12 leaves)
- 1-2 green serrano chili peppers (optional, leave out if sensitive to heat as we'll add paprika later)
- 4 cloves garlic (chopped)
- 1/2 inch knob of ginger (chopped)
- 2 tbsp vegan yogurt (can use a nut-free yogurt)
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1/2 tsp paprika
- 1/2 tsp garam masala
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- Salt to taste
- 3 tbsp all purpose flour (I used gluten-free flour, but regular all purpose is fine too)
- 2 tbsp cornstarch
For the spicy sauce:
- 1 cup vegan yogurt (can use a nut-free yogurt)
- 1/2 tsp cornstarch
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp cayenne (use more or less depending on how much spice you can tolerate)
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 10 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
- 2 sprigs curry leaves
- 1 medium red onion (cut into large cubes, petals separated)
- 1 medium green pepper (cut into large cubes, same as onions)
- 2 tbsp tomato ketchup
- Salt and ground black pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup spring onions (sliced, for garnish)
Make the tofu:
- Place all ingredients other than the tofu, cornstarch and all purpose flour in a blender and blend into a thick paste. Add a tiny bit of water, a tablespoon at a time, if needed to keep the blades moving.
- Place the tofu cubes in a bowl. Add the marinade, salt and ground black pepper to taste, and the flours. Mix well until the marinade coats the tofu. If too dry, add a tiny bit of water.
- Arrange the tofu in a single layer in the air fryer basket and, working in batches if necessary, air-fry it at 400 degrees for 12-14 minutes, turning over once halfway through, until crispy. Don't worry if the pieces of tofu stick together, you can separate them before adding to the sauce.
- If baking the tofu, line the pieces in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment or silpat. Bake in a preheated 450 degree oven for 25-30 minutes, turning over once halfway, or until crispy.
- Set the tofu aside while you make the sauce.
Make the sauce:
- Mix the vegan yogurt with the cornstarch, cayenne and paprika and set aside.
- Heat a wok over high heat. Add the oil carefully to the hot wok and then add in the garlic. Stir-fry the garlic quickly until it just starts to change color, then add in the onions, curry leaves and green bell peppers. Continue to stir-fry for a minute, then add the tomato ketchup and mix in. Quickly add in the yogurt with the spices and cornstarch mixed in. Cook, stirring constantly, until the yogurt bubbles. If your yogurt is too thick, you could add a couple of tablespoons of water to thin it out.
- Add salt to taste, then add in the prepped tofu cubes. Mix in and turn off the heat.
- Garnish with the spring onions and serve hot or at room temperature.