Simple yet delicious vegan substitutes

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been looking closely at vegan substitutes. And if you’ve been following me on Instagram, you’ll have seen my attempts at converting some of my popular recipes into vegan versions:

Realistically, this isn’t all that difficult as much authentic vegetarian cuisine of the type I write about is either vegan already, or can be made vegan with some simple and delicious substitutions. For example:

  • substitute ghee (aka clarified or melted butter) with vegan margarine, such as Vitalite Sunflower for spreading, or Stork for baking
  • instead of dairy yoghurt (dahi), substitute for vegan yoghurt made from cultured soya milk, or coconut milk which adds an extra exotic depth to creamy curries.
  • talking of milk, I’ve really been enjoying Alpro Soya Unsweetened wholebean as a substitute to dairy milk. This has a very mild flavour which makes it perfect for cooking, as it avoids imparting unexpected sweetness and it doesn’t curdle unlike cheaper brands.

While some substitutions are easy to live with (and sometimes even better), the one thing that many of you have said you can’t live without is cheese. And I know what you mean! In an Indian vegetarian diet, cheese is a key source of protein along with lentils.

But realistically, my ancestors in India would not have eaten the kinds of cheese that we have become used to in the Western world. More likely, they would have had paneer, a home made cottage cheese which is really easy to make at home.

Paneer is popular, as it’s very easy and quick to make into a tasty curry. For people who used to eat meat, I’m told it makes a good substitute.

The vegan substitute for paneer is tofu.

Now this is an ingredient that often divides people, as they’ve had experiences cooking with it at home or eating it out. I myself have often found it quite rubbery when ordering a Thai-style red curry and, at home, I haven’t really been confident enough to use it.

That’s where the help of my son has been invaluable. Over the Christmas period, he’s been at home with me and in fact was the one who encouraged me to try going vegan for January. So we’ve been enjoying trying out a whole range of vegan alternatives, and his experience in cooking tofu really helped me develop a recipe for a delicious vegan mutter paneer – or mutter tofu. Mutter means peas, as you can see from this photo:

To be honest, I was a bit anxious when we started making this as I had guests visiting later that evening for dinner, and I don’t usually want to make an untested dish! However, I’m glad that I tried this. I actually served both the classic mutter paneer and the mutter tofu for my guests, and invited them to feed back to me.

I’m delighted to report that the mutter tofu was a hit! The tofu came out deliciously soft and well-marinated with the flavours of the curry, yet it held its shape well. It almost had the texture of a potato curry, it was so melt in the mouth!

Tofu tips

I’m still working on the full recipe, but I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned with you as soon as possible.

Firstly, there are so many different types of tofu.

Silken, soft, firm, extra firm etc etc – and I actually bought the wrong type for this curry first time around. They all have a similar mild flavour, but the main difference is the texture.

Silken tofu is a fine, almost jelly-like version of tofu that is definitely not the right kind to replace paneer. For this, you need firm or even extra firm tofu, which has been pressed to remove as much liquid as possible from the final product.

I had imagined this tofu was widely available, but surprisingly I couldn’t find it in Tesco or Waitrose. In fact, my son had to go to Sainsbury’s where he reported he had a wide range of choice for tofu and other vegan products (more on that in another post).

For our mutter tofu we picked extra firm tofu from The Tofoo Co:

Tofu from the Tofoo co in packaging

Secondly, tofu benefits from extra pressing.

Even though we bought tofu that said it didn’t need pressing, we pressed it for an extra 20 minutes whilst getting the other ingredients together. This meant it was ideal as a paneer replacement and could be cut into the perfect size cubes for frying.

Pressed tofu

Finally, dust tofu with cornflour for curry

Tofu in Indian style curries really benefits from a good dusting of cornflour before frying. When preparing paneer, I never bother with this and just fry it directly. Adding cornflour to tofu though gives it a beautifully crisp crust that’s robust enough to withstand frying at high heat, and helps soak up the juices of the curry. It’s the key to transforming it from a tasteless block to a star ingredient.

Tofu cubed and dusted with cornflour

So, I hope that’s helped demystify tofu a bit for you. It really can be a simple vegan substitution in many paneer curries with a bit of preparation.

Muttur tofu close up
Mutter tofu – the finished product

In general, vegan substitutes are widely available, simple to use and delicious. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and I’m looking forward to sharing my full mutter tofu recipe with you in the next few days.

Until then, happy cooking – and eating!

What are your top tips for vegan substitutes?

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