Restaurant-Style Chilli Paneer
I was introduced to Indo-Chinese food in the late 90s when “fusion cooking” wasn’t a dirty phrase and British curry houses were no longer the only “Indian” option when eating out in the UK. Korma? What was that? Balti, Bhuna and Phall? I’d never heard of them. Growing up in a Gujarati household meant that I was accustomed to Bhaji nu Shaak (spinach cooked with garlic), Oroh (burnt aubergine curry), Guvar (cluster beans) and Bhinda ni Kadhi (okra in buttermilk soup). I’d nod and smile as my friends raved about the dishes they relished during their weekend visit to the local Indian restaurant and I had no idea what half of the dishes were. I felt like a fraud. Bombay Potatoes? Was that like the Bateta nu Shaak my mum made at home?
We rarely ate out at Indian restaurants in those days. The vegetarian options were limited to side dishes of random “mixed vegetables” swimming in generic curry sauces and quite frankly, homemade was better.
As the millennium approached, more and more options bubbled up, beginning with areas populated with a high density of Indian residents. Leicester, Wembley and Southall were all on the radar and we visited often. It was in Leicester that I first read the words “Indo-Chinese fusion dishes” on a restaurant menu and this immediately grabbed my attention. I wanted to know more. A whole list of dishes to choose from and I made it my mission to try them all. Chilli Paneer, Gobi Manchurian, Hakka Noodles, Spring Rolls, Mixed Rice & Noodle Sizzler and even Szechuan Dosa were options. I ordered as much as I could manage and that was the day I fell in love with Chilli Paneer.
I later learned that Indo-Chinese food, also known as Desi Chinese was a cuisine developed by the Chinese community of Kolkata, West Bengal. It became a lifelong dream of mine to visit Kolkata’s Chinatown and enjoy Hakka-Indian food in its original birthplace. Just as my grandparents and thousands of other families brought Indian cuisine to East Africa and the British embraced Indian curry, this small community of Hakka settlers shared the gift of their ancestral cuisine with Kolkata. Little did they know that it would lead to the creation of a truly exquisite Indian-Chinese food culture that’s now internationally sought after. Food travels regardless of borders. This is pure comfort food which is why it’s such a treat when eating out. It’s spicy, garlicky, smoky and umami-rich with a liberal attitude towards rivers of soy sauce and the addition of MSG (ajinomoto) in most dishes. It’s not a style of cooking that shys away from battering and deep frying either. Green chilli, spring onions, ginger, garlic, tomato ketchup, soy sauce, chilli sauce, vinegar, turmeric, black pepper and sugar are all widely-used ingredients in Indo-Chinese dishes. A smoking hot cast iron wok is essential for the highly coveted wok hei caramelisation and aromas.
Indo-Chinese food is all about taking an abundance of fresh veg, protein and Indian spices and pairing them with sticky, umami-rich cornflour-thickened sauces. These sauces are unlike anything you get in traditional Indian cooking. If you’re a fan of Singapore Noodles, Laksa and Nasi Goreng, it’s worth giving Indo-Chinese food go.
My Instagram family have recently made their love of Chilli Paneer very clear. After a poll, they voted Leicester restaurants Indigo, Chai Paani and Tangoe as the best places to eat the famous dish. Special mention for Sakonis which isn’t in Leicester (they have restaurants in Wembley and Hatch End) but still do a delicious Chilli Paneer. Luckily, I’ve tried them all (several times over) and did my best to recreate the best version in my kitchen at home. The criteria was as follows: The paneer needed to be juicy on the inside and crispy on the outside, the peppers needed some crunch, the sauce had to be loaded with garlic, no tomatoes, lots of green chillies, soy sauce-rich and slightly sweet. Well my friends, I think I may have nailed it but I’ll let you have the final say on that. If you’ve never tried Indo-Chinese food before, Chilli Paneer is one fusion dish worth trying.
Restaurant-Style Chilli Paneer
An Indo-Chinese restaurant favourite made with juicy cubes of paneer, spring onions and peppers cooked in a chilli and garlic sauce. This dish packs a punch.
- 450 g paneer ((cut into 2cm cubes))
- 2 tbsp cornflour ((cornstarch))
- 1 tsp ground white pepper
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 3 tbsp sunflower or rapeseed oil
- 10 spring onions, white and green parts ((sliced on the bias))
- 3 red and green peppers ((sliced into 3cm strips))
- 8 large cloves garlic ((peeled and crushed))
- 3-4 green chillies ((sliced on the bias))
- 3 tbsp light soy sauce ((you can use dark soy sauce for a darker colour))
- 1 tsp sugar
- 2 tbsp freshly-chopped coriander ((to garnish))
- 100 g shredded lettuce leaves ((to serve))
- Place the paneer cubes in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to sit for 5 minutes. Drain leaving some of the moisture behind.
- Add the cornflour, salt and ground white pepper. Toss the paneer and cornflour mixture together until the paneer is well coated. Some of the reserved moisture from the water will help the cornflour stick to the paneer.
- In a large cast iron wok, heat the oil. Add the paneer cubes and shallow fry until lightly golden, no longer than a minute or they will go hard. Keep the paneer moving with the help of a wooden spoon. Remove the paneer with a slotted spoon and allow to drain on a plate lined with absorbent kitchen towel.
- If you need to, remove some of the oil from the wok so you’re left with around 2 tbsp. Heat the wok up until it’s smoking hot. Add the garlic and chillies and cook for 30 seconds. Next, add the spring onions (reserve a handful for garnishing) and peppers and stir-fry for a minute.
- Add in the soy sauce, sugar and paneer pieces. Stir-fry for 2-3 minutes and then finally add the coriander. Give it all a good mix and serve immediately with shredded lettuce leaves and the reserved spring onions.
- Use dark soy sauce for a darker colour if that’s what you prefer.
- I like my Chilli Paneer without a thick sauce but if you’d like to make one, add 100ml water to the wok after the peppers and onions have cooked. Make a slurry of 1 tbsp cornflour well dissolved in 2 tbsp cold water and add it to the cooked peppers and onions. Keep stirring over a high heat for a thick sauce.
Pin it for later!