Paneer tikka masala is the vegetarian equivalent of the most popular Indian dish in America, which is chicken tikka masala.
Paneer tikka masala is a fancy name for a flavorful, spiced, tomato sauce filled with cubes of chewy-soft paneer cheese.
The main ingredients in the sauce are tomato puree, ginger, garlic, green chili, bay leaf, garam masala, and cilantro.
The creaminess comes from cashew milk or fresh cream, and it tones down all the spices, adds sweetness, and well, the magic touch.
Paneer tikka masala is usually eaten with basmati rice and flatbread, such as naan or roti. The overall taste is a little sweet, which is likely one of the reasons everybody likes it.
Why do we love it?
Another reason I think a lot of Westerners love this dish is because ... errrr ... we invented it—or should I say the British, India's former colonial rulers, invented it.
It is natural to adapt flavors to suit one's own tastes. Westerners tend to love garlic, and tikka masala is made with garlic. This may not be notable, except that garlic is generally not used in Indian cooking.Paneer Tikka Masala is the vegetarian equivalent of America's most popular Indian dish: Chicken Tikka Masala. Click To Tweet
Another interesting fact is how this dish is loved by children. At first this was surprising to me.
Dassana Amit, of the blog, “Veg Recipes of India,” recommends this dish for children. Contrary to our understanding that children don't like spicy food, there is the issue of exposure, and apparently children love many flavorful foods if given the opportunity to try them.
Lisa Sohanpal, co-founder of the Canada-based award-winning Nom Noms World Food, a manufacturer of world cuisine for children, explained to me a couple of years ago that children love variety. Who knew?
Paneer Tikka Masala is just one of hundreds of Indian dishes made with the unripened Indian cheese known as paneer.
Sometimes compared to cottage cheese, paneer's texture is firmer. It's high in protein and combines well with all kinds of vegetable dishes.
You can purchase paneer online, or at an Indian store. I have seen it at Whole Foods, so it may also be available at other natural foods stores. It is also simple to make at home using my recipe.
All you do is separate the curds from the whey by adding a bit of lemon juice to hot milk. Then you press the curds into a block. It could be the simplest cheese on earth. Brilliant!
And for my vegan readers, or those who don't have easy access to paneer, simply substitute the paneer with tofu. The butter in this tikka masala can also be substituted with olive oil.
Healthier sauce version
In addition to butter, a tikka masala is traditionally made with cream. In this recipe, cashews are used to create a creamy consistency.
I always like it when I can incorporate nuts into my dinner, because nuts are a good quality fat, and a source of vegetarian protein.
Although fat have been shunned for many years, it is now more widely understood that saturated fats are necessary for brain development, liver health, immunity, and healthy hormones. What's key is to obtain quality sources of saturated fats, and consume them in moderation.
Many sources of saturated fats are also filled with nutrients and minerals. Such sources are particularly important for vegetarians.
Raw cashews are high in protein, fiber, copper, manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, thiamin, Vitamin B6, Vitamin K, iron, potassium, zinc, and selenium.
Recipe For Healthy Paneer Tikka Masala With Cashew Cream
Start the tikka masala sauce
- 2 tablespoons ghee or butter, (for vegan, use coconut oil)
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, finely chopped
Add to the tikka masala sauce
- 28 ounces tomato puree (large can or 3 ½ cups fresh tomatoes)
- ¼ teaspoon red chili powder (substitute with cayenne pepper), to taste
- ½ teaspoon Himalayan pink salt, or to taste
- 20 whole cashews, soaked and blended into a paste
- 2 green chilis (substitute with jalapeños), sliced on the diagonal
- ½ cup water
To sauté the paneer
- 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
- 150 grams paneer (about 1 ½ cups cubed), (for vegan, use tofu or mixed vegetables; see notes)
- Soak cashews in ½ cup of water for 1–2 hours. Grind in blender or mini chopper with soaking water into a smooth milk. If you didn’t have time to soak, you can still make the paste. It just won’t be quite as smooth. Set aside until needed.
- Peel the ginger and garlic, and finely chop with a knife. Set aside until needed.
- Slice your green chiles on the diagonal. Set aside until needed.
- Chop paneer into ½-inch cubes and set aside until needed.
Make the tikka masala sauce
- Heat ghee or butter in a medium saucepan on medium heat. Add bay leaves and sauté for 10–15 seconds, or until you can smell the aroma.
- Add the garlic and ginger, and sauté until it is just starting to brown, about 1–2 minutes.
- Add the tomato puree, red chili powder, and salt, and stir well. Simmer until the fat starts to separate from the tomato and an oil sheen develops on the surface (about 5 minutes). If the tomato gets too thick, add water.
- Add the cashew milk, green chilis, and water, and stir well. Simmer until the masala begins to thicken, about 20 minutes.
Sauté the paneer
- Meanwhile, sauté the paneer cubes in vegetable oil in a medium skillet. The paneer will release some liquid at the beginning. Careful once the liquid dries up, as the paneer will burn easily. Turn frequently to brown the paneer, and then set it aside until the masala sauce has thickened.
- Add the paneer cubes to the tikka masala sauce and cook for 2–3 minutes. Do not overcook at this stage, as the paneer may harden if overcooked.
Finish the paneer tikka masala
- Add kasoori methi and garam masala. Stir, taste, and make a final adjustment for salt. If you feel it needs it, add a little bit of raw organic sugar to balance the flavors.
- Garnish with fresh chopped coriander leaves.
- Serve paneer tikka masala hot with an Indian flatbread (such as naan) for dipping, and/or basmati rice.