Chili Paneer (a/k/a Chilly Paneer)


When I lived in the Bay Area in the mid-2000s, my love for Indian food was expanded with a great deal of exposure to regional Indian foods, Indian street food, etc. I heard about Indo-Chinese (a/k/a Indian-Chinese) food from a number of people, but never got around to actually trying it. As it was explained to me then, Indo-Chinese food was the product of Chinese chefs coming to India and cooking food. In the years since, I have heard others say that Indo-Chinese food is more accurately compared to American-Chinese food, as an adaptation of Chinese food for the local tastes and ingredients that may end up having little to do with any Chinese cuisine at all. I've also heard some speak about Indo-Chinese food as being the food of regions like Tibet and Nepal which themselves are influenced both by the things that gave rise to Indian food and the things that gave rise to Chinese food. And then there are regions where the spectrum of cuisine between, say, India and Southeast Asia become more apparent, as with the use of things like fermented bamboo and fresh spices in Nagaland.

Regional Indian food does vary tremendously. When I encounter people who complain that my local Andhra-style restaurant doesn't do food as well as those Indian restaurants that are throughout the UK it shocks me, but it shouldn't. We speak about Indian food in the West (as I have somewhat done in this introduction) in absolutely stupid ways that expose our ignorance of Asian geography and culture, and this is of course even more the case with Chinese food. Nobody would walk out of a Spanish restaurant decrying their poor preparation of "European food" as compared to a nearby Italian joint. (As it happens, that Andhra place is actually quite good, but of course the food is very different, and perhaps even worse, from the perspective of one who assumes it to be aspiring to the Mughlai and Punjabi food of Britain. Very few good gravies will be found, but whole spices and many layered dry spices will be.)

I talk about Chili Paneer as being the archetypal Indo-Chinese dish, as it does come across quite clearly as being a mix of East Asian and South Asian ingredients, cooking styles, and flavors. It is also a dish that varies more than any accepted part of the American-Chinese canon I can think of. There are four varieties that I am concerned with, because I adore them.

The variety I first encountered was served to me in a very small and very wonderful restaurant in Warsaw. The neighborhood was just astonishingly-vibrant, with multiple good South Asian restaurants, police beating up homeless people, easy access to mass transit, and shady strip clubs that constantly plastered car windscreens with flyers. Vibrant, I tell you. I digress.

It was served to me sizzling on a hot place, with red and green capsicum (that is, red and green bell peppers) and onions and spices. It was so good. And hot! Hot food had been in short supply as we made our way east across Europe at the start of the Mongol Rally. It was hot outside, summer, lovely, and I wanted hot food, and could not for the life of me get it. Chinese restaurants in the Czech Republic struck me as perhaps even blander than those in America. No heat. So much corn starch. Yuck! And here was this dish I had heard about and wanted to try but never actually tried before. And it was hot. And it was savory beyond any good sense, and it was just amazingly-good. Especially eaten with naan.

The second variety I encountered in Kyiv just a few days later. We were leaving Kyiv, in fact, and stopped in at New Bombay Palace. (33a ul. Druzhby Narodiv, do go if you're ever in Kyiv. And then hike up to the Rodina Mat that stares out over the river. The food is wonderful, and vodka plentiful.)

New Bombay Palace had a truly epic Indo-Chinese menu. If I could import their chef to the US, I would do it. I would bankrupt myself if I had to. Their food was much more like Indo-Chinese food as I had imagined it. Corn starch and paneer and kofta. Hot and savory and soy-soaked. They had soups which implied American-Chinese buffet as much as they implied Bombay or Beijing. It was wonderful. We ended up staying several days more in Kyiv for another reason, but I think we stayed even longer because I could not give up New Bombay Palace. I had not felt so comfortable or at-home in any restaurant in Ukraine. I had not eaten meals which were so satisfying. I had not eaten so many vegetables. And there is something glorious about a meal which begins with vodka and ends with chai and more vodka and includes so much delicious food in-between. I almost always got their Chili Paneer.

And they had other things that were related, too. Like a Green Peas Chili which was basically the same as Chili Paneer except it was made with kofta made with green peas instead.

The Chili Paneer there was more savory and salty and slightly less spicy. It tasted wonderfully meaty and of garlic. It was like Salt and Pepper Tofu made with paneer instead of tofu. And in a corn starch sauce. And with some Indian spices. The paneer was fried this time, and it was served in a great little copper serving kadhai. I think I sometimes ate it twice in a day.

The third kind is rather more like Nepalese food and has the added benefit of being possible to find in the United States. Indeed, I first had it and have repeatedly had it at Annapurna in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the intersection of Walden and Mass. Ave., as I have become so accustomed to barking at cab drivers when in urgent need of a fix.

I had given up on Chili Paneer in the United States after the mediocre offerings found south of the Charles at an altogether excellent restaurant with an altogether excellent Indo-Chinese menu but thoroughly lackluster Chili Paneer. But I decided to give Annapurna a shot. Because I had walked in the wrong direction on Mass. Ave. And was exhausted.

I am so glad that I did.

It may even be my favorite variety of Chili Paneer. It is rich, slightly tangy, very savory, hot, dry, and wonderful. It is almost too bad that it is such a dry variety, because its leavings, its sauce, is the best thing I have ever eaten. I eschew the very good rice at Annapurna entirely to eat it up with plain naan eagerly at the end of the meal. The chef/owner of Annapurna tells me that he perfected his recipe for Chili Paneer by making it for groups of people hiking the mountain of the same name, where he used to help lead hikers. He even gave me his recipe at some point, which sadly involves a spice blend I have not yet managed to import from Nepal.

I did not ask him for his recipe before attempting to match the excellent flavors of it myself. I came close, and in the process made something I think of as distinct and distinctly-good, if not the same as what I set out to replicate. Adding copious amounts of a spice mix he suggested which is readily- and cheaply-available in the United States, though, improved it measurably. The secret to this dish, and to mine, is the use of fennel, about which more in the recipe.

The fourth kind is what is served at my local Andhra restaurant, the one I previously-mentioned. In keeping with Andhra cooking, it is easily made quite hot, and is very rich with dry spices. The paneer is dredged and fried and the whole affair comes out a wonderful kind of oily, an oil which is infused with so much onion and cumin and heat in a most wonderful way. They put it on the menu because I asked if they could make it, seeing as how they already had Chili Chicken on the menu. They agreed, and I sent throngs of people by way of a Yelp review who demanded it, too, and it showed up on the menu. I thought that was pretty great.

There are so many more varieties of Chili Paneer, many which like that I had in Warsaw and like that I regularly have at Annapurna tend to be much more like Kadhai Paneer, only better. Many more which tend to be very much like the Indo-Chinese food that is more like American-Chinese food; corn starch, onions, green onions, soy. Most, but not all, have something to recommend them. I started out, in the aftermath of New Bombay Palace, learning how to make the corn starch and soy varieties, and when I started in earnest to move towards Annapurna's, I carried a bit of knowledge from those experiences.

The Secret and the Goal

Annapurna's Chili Paneer features fennel. The fennel and the garlic work together to produce a flavor which is the equal of and not dissimilar to one of my childhood favorites: pepperoni. The fennel probably should not be bought from an Indian grocer in the United States. Why? Because most fennel (saunf) used in India and especially in Indian contexts in the United States is not the kind that will yield a flavor like pepperoni or sausage, for lack of a better comparison. Most fennel you will find will tend to, especially with any kind of cooking or breaking of the seeds, yield a flavor like anise or licorice. That is not what you want. I cannot emphasize enough how awful that is. And I cannot emphasize enough how wonderful the use of the right kind of fennel is. The fennel at Annapurna comes from two packaged spice blends that contain fennel, and both use this more-savory kind that you want.

But you will not find the savory kind at Indian grocers, even very big ones, in the United States. Not without a lot of luck. Maybe a Nepalese grocer would use better luck, or a grocer which focuses on the regional food of Uttar Pradesh, which I understand uses more fennel in this way. If you go into an Indian grocer in the United States they might tell you that you probably just mean cumin (jeera), or perhaps black cumin (kala jeera). It is possible that the kind of black cumin that is not called kalonji, but is only called kala jeera would turn out to work in the right way, but I have not done extensive testing. Ajwain, too, is the wrong thing. I use McCormick brand fennel, which always seems to be the right thing where other brands seem to often or always be the wrong thing. I buy big jugs of it from a restaurant supply store and go through it very quickly. You should, too.

Use the right kind of fennel, and expect it to taste spicy, savory and not entirely unlike a cured meat product featuring lots of garlic and fennel. Yes, I know how weird that sounds, especially in a the context of a vegetarian nominally-Indian dish. Go to Annapurna and see if I'm wrong. Or make this, and with a little luck you'll come to agree.

Not My Style

I don't cook from recipes, I don't often write down recipes, but one can only be asked so many times to try writing something down before one gives in. I have had my partner test this recipe and it is only slightly inferior to the version that I make when cooking freestyle. That said, it should be rather a bit more consistent than my freestyle version, which sometimes is mind-rottingly amazing, and sometimes is sort of meh. I may have to take video of myself cooking it in the future and rate the results and eventually transcribe the actions I've taken to make the best version. That's getting a bit silly, though, even by my standards. Still, you should be warned that this is a reproduction of a recollection of an improvisation based on my recollection of some food I ate far away from home.

Also, this is not written like a recipe, at least not how recipes tend to be written in the United States. Read through it once or twice to get some idea of what the hell's going on and what ingredients you will need.

In the Kitchen

You will need a kadhai. You need a pan with high sides and a large, flat (and heavy) bottom. Some woks made for use in the west are built like this, but I find that a proper kadhai has better proportions. For the amount you will be making, you want a medium-sized kadhai or better. Mine is a size 8, made by Stephy Industries, which claims to be 406mm in diameter. I have not measured it. It is too small. I often have spillage. Higher sides and a bottom of the same size would be fine. You just need to contain everything. You will be stirring a bunch, so if the bottom isn't super-wide that's ok, but more food in contact with a cooking surface is better.

Toast some dried red chilies in your kadhai. This is a very Szechuan sort of preparing chilies for a dish. You are going to toast them until they are almost blackened, or starting to blacken. Do it over high heat so that you vaporize them a little and start coughing painfully from the smoke. I'm only kidding a little. Cooking them that way makes them give off sort of a nice and hearty flavor, too. They're good helpers for fennel and garlic, but only if you barely-blacken them. If I ever post my version of Nepalese-style Aloo Ko Achaar, I'll write more about this. Remove the chilies from the kadhai, you have better things to do with it now. I would use at least a dozen red chilies, but you may use fewer if you are sensitive to heat, or more if you want more. They're not very fun to eat in this dish, so I sometimes go through and remove them one-by-one. That's a lot easier the times I've used about a dozen than the times I've used about four dozen.

Put the kadhai over medium heat and add the following things, in order, one at a time, while muttering to yourself under your breath.

  1. 4 tbsp. ghee (wait for it to melt)
  2. 4 tbsp. ginger garlic paste1
  3. 4 tbsp. green chili paste (optional; improves flavor and heat)
  4. 4 bell peppers, red and green, chopped into 1" pieces
  5. 1 tsp. ajinomoto2
  6. 1 tsp. kosher salt2
  7. 3 tbsp. fennel
  8. 2 tbsp. Shan Karahi/Fry Gosht spice mix
  9. all toasted chilies

Cook and stir for a bit until the ginger garlic paste (and optionally the green chili paste) is well-distributed and has been cooked some by the ghee. If you cook uncooked ginger garlic paste in a liquid without frying it a little bit first, I find it tends to put out a bit of a nasty taste. It doesn't need to be browned, but it's good to take a minute or two stirring this stuff around and letting the flavors mix. This is where you're building the flavor base that will influence the whole rest of the thing.

Once you're done with all that nonsense, go to medium-low heat. Add:

  1. 1 pound of paneer in 1" cubes

Let that cook for 20-40 minutes. You're cooking the liquid out of your bell peppers at this point, and letting the liquid and the ghee move flavors into the paneer. You're also reducing the liquid, so cook uncovered unless you like really springy, squeaky paneer. I'm still not sure if doing this all uncovered is best, but I think it is. At this point you should stir every 5-10 minutes, but expect some sticking to your kadhai, too. You didn't use a non-stick kadhai, right? The browning is actually important. Don't use a non-stick kadhai! But do try to trick someone else into agreeing to get the burnt residue of paneer and less-identifiable things off of the bottom of your kadhai afterwards. It's a real chore!

When that's done, go up to medium-high or even high heat. You're going to cook things down quite a bit now, and stir vigorously. You're going to break some of the perfect little cubes of paneer, but that's fine! It's perhaps even a good thing. I don't know. Anyway, you're stirring like a fool and somehow also managing to add:

  1. 2 tbsp. Shan Karahi/Fry Gosht spice mix
  2. 3 tbsp. fennel
  3. 2 tsp. Bragg's liquid aminos3
  4. 2 tsp. Maggi liquid seasoning3

Once that's all integrated, and the sauce is thick if you can identify it at all, you're done. Serve over basmati rice, or with some plain naan or some nice roti. I prefer naan, but if it's very hot then the basmati is nice for thinning it out a bit.

Serves two and a half hungry, hungry humans. Which is to say that if two people set out to eat it, they're both going to feel excessively-full at the end and leave some on their plates, in their bowls, on the floor, and/or in the pan. Maybe you should just serve it to three people and do some small sides or provide some naan instead.

Additional Notes

1: Do consider using fresh, uncured garlic instead or in addition. (If you use it instead, add some ginger paste or powder or whole chopped ginger, too.) Fresh garlic brings more heat and the pepperoni-ish flavor that I set the goal as being. But ginger garlic paste is a lot more convenient and consistent.

2: When adding salt and ajinomoto, be sure to crush them up in your fingers and spread them finely over the whole thing. The paneer will happily absorb anything you throw at them, which will in turn make you unhappy at a later date. Yuck! Also, I would rant here about how people freak out about added MSG more than they freak out about things that are exactly as problematic because MSG is associated with Chinese food and thus supposedly-untrustworthy foreigners. But this is a recipe and not a treatise on cultural stereotypes, suspicion and racism. So I'll just say that.

3: The Bragg's and Maggi here are being used instead of soy sauce because I have a soy allergy and want to minimize the soy used while still getting a good flavor. I am not sure whether I like it better with the soy or with the substitute, but I don't miss the soy anymore, I know.

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