Written by Goh Zhen Kang
Source: NDTV Food
The Phantom Menace
Before we dive into the recipe proper, let me take a moment to share how I stumbled upon this culinary gem. You see, in this age of online recipe sharing, it's not uncommon to come across articles that seem to delight in lengthy personal stories and unsolicited opinions (see here) but stay with me here.
During my first year in Raffles Hall, I found myself in a bit of a bind. Most of my first semester flew by in a blur of late-night suppers and mid-lecture nap so to no one's surprise, my grades took a hit. The only way out was to hunker down and study relentlessly. Amidst this academic ordeal, I was also grappling with some less-than-ideal relations with my blockmates. Long hours of study can do that to a person. With that, I fully embraced the phantom lifestyle, haunting the Comm Hall at breakfast before disappearing into the depths of my lair.
When I finally emerged from my dark cave, stumbling out in a Monster-induced stupor, the sunlight physically hurt my skin. My neighbours were surprised that my room even had a resident at all, believing it to have been vacant all this time. I desperately needed a break, anything to reconnect with reality. Like a well-timed cosmic cue, Green Comm announced their Vegetarian Cook Off Competition, stirring excitement throughout the hall. The grand prize? An air fryer that had every aspiring chef's mouth watering. But here's the catch: the organisers intended to award it to the best block, rather than the best cook. A better man would have fought tooth and nail for the sake of their neighbours, expecting nothing in return.
However, Block 2 didn’t have a better man. Block 2 had me.
Source: Know Your Meme
I surveyed our sticky, dust-covered pantry, adorned with a mishmash of decor that could best be described as "Tumblr-era teenager under duress." It hardly seemed the right place for a pristine air fryer. Moreover, Block 2 was already the proud owner of two well-oiled (literally) air fryers. Using my finest economic analysis skills, I weighed our options.
Source: Kang’s EC5267
Thus, I decided to enter the competition, determined to claim that air fryer and keep it far from my blockmates' grasp. My initial plan involved presenting my classic vegetarian spaghetti recipe, confident that the prize was as good as mine.
But as the saying goes, even the best-laid plans often go awry. I hit a roadblock immediately—the competition required participants to register in pairs, and I was short on culinary comrades. Time was running out, and I desperately reached out to the few friends I had left. Fortunately, Kunjan, the most culinarily inclined member of RHMP Sets, answered the call.
Source: Kang’s iPhone and why is it so blurry oh my days
Kunjan was no stranger to mischief and had an impeccable taste for food, making him the perfect partner in our caper. My initial culinary vision was limited to a humble dish of vegetarian pasta, a safe and familiar choice. However, Kunjan had grander ideas, something spicier and more adventurous. He argued that we needed a dish that would not only tantalise taste buds but also make a statement. That's when Kadai Paneer made its entrance.
For the uninitiated, Kadai Paneer is a North Indian delight—a flavorful and aromatic dish featuring succulent chunks of paneer (Indian cottage cheese) swimming in a rich tomato-based gravy, generously spiced and full of character.
Kunjan invited me to sit in on a video call with his mother back home to learn the secrets of her famous Kadai Paneer. As someone with a low spice tolerance encoded into my DNA, you can imagine my initial trepidation. However, watching Kunjan enthusiastically converse with his mother made me reflect on my own parents, whom I had neglected to call or visit for weeks, despite them living just an hour away. Hoping to share some of that warmth, I opened my mind to the possibilities of paneer.
The following hour was transformative. With a language barrier in place, Kunjan had to serve as a translator, relaying my questions to his mother and helping us scribble down her recipe. I was beginning to understand the power of food—the way it effortlessly connected people across the globe. Equipped with newfound culinary knowledge and a deeper appreciation for food, we readied ourselves for the cook-off.
Source: Kang’s iPhone
Shopping for ingredients proved to be a challenge. Despite a generous budget courtesy of Green Comm, no amount of money could improve the quality of produce at NTUC. Tomatoes, a key ingredient in Kadai Paneer, were a sorry sight—hard, yellowed, and hardly recognizable as tomatoes. Kunjan lamented that the tomatoes back home were of far superior quality compared to those in Singapore. We chalked it up to Singapore's lower percentage of vegetarian inhabitants (7% compared to India's 23%), resulting in a lesser emphasis on quality produce. With no better options, we soldiered on, relying on Kunjan's impressive array of spices to compensate for the subpar tomatoes.
The day of the cook-off shattered all our preconceived notions. Every detail we had meticulously planned began to unravel. We had expected an easy victory—who else would choose to make paneer, after all? To our shock, another pair had decided to prepare Palak Paneer! Besides the spinach-based curry, their dish was virtually indistinguishable from ours. We could no longer rely on the originality of our dish to carry our way to victory, the deciding factor would most definitely boil down to quality. Knowing this, we resolved to make everything by hand. This was by no means an easy feat, to make paneer from scratch required minimally 4 hours to get any edible cheese. We had no choice but to hunker down and get to work. If we wanted to keep that air fryer out of Block 2’s grubby hands, we were going to have to get dirty.
Another pair of contestants had submitted virgin lime mojitos, much to the delight of the judges. To make matters worse, the Palak Paneer pair had performed exceptionally well, with the Green Comm judges commending their creativity and “green theme”. Kunjan and I were tearing our hair out, standards had been set so high that we HAD to blow the competition out of the water or risk total humiliation.
We blitzed, chopped and stirred for literal hours, time itself melding into a simmering spicy stew. We were locked in, working in perfect unison towards the same shared goal. As the day went by, a small crowd began to form outside the pantry, drawn in by the heavenly combination of turmeric and garam masala.
Being a social recluse for most of the semester, you’d imagine that performing in front of an audience would have been more nerve-wracking for me. Surprisingly, I never even noticed the commotion outside until Kunjan pointed it out afterwards. There’s something therapeutic about being in absolute control over your environment. Some say that cooking is an art, where you channel your emotions into your work, putting your heart and soul into everything you make. I’d say that cooking is meditation. You’re focused on a task, shutting yourself off to the rest of the world, so focused that even your own emotions fade away. At that moment, nothing else mattered. It was just me and my workstation, chopping and stirring away. Pulling the paneer out from the freezer, I forgot all about the promised air fryer. We were simply so relieved that the cheese had set properly that we couldn’t care less about anything else.
The judges barely gave us time to plate everything before they began scrambling to taste our creation. Their eyes widened as they savoured the spicy, aromatic flavours that danced on their taste buds. When the results were announced, we were thrilled to hear our names called as the winners of the Green Comm Cooking Competition. The air fryer was finally ours, and it symbolised not only our culinary victory but also the power of collaboration and creativity.
In the end, Kadai Paneer became more than just a recipe; it was a dish that brought together two individuals from different blocks, united by their love for good food and a shared goal. So, the next time you're in the mood for a culinary adventure, remember that sometimes, millions must fry—a toast to the endless possibilities that arise when people from different walks of life come together over a shared love for good food and a dash of adventure.
For the Kadai Masala:
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
4-5 dried red chilies (adjust to taste)
4-5 black peppercorns
2-3 green cardamom pods
1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
For the Curry:
250 grams paneer (cottage cheese), cubed
2 tablespoons oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper (capsicum), diced
2-3 medium-sized tomatoes, finely chopped
1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon red chilli powder (adjust to taste)
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon garam masala
Salt to taste
Fresh coriander leaves, chopped, for garnish
For the Paneer:
1 litre of milk (whole milk is preferred for creamier paneer)
2-3 tablespoons of lemon juice or white vinegar
A pinch of salt (optional)
Prepare the Kadai Masala:
Dry roast all the spices listed under "Kadai Masala" on medium-low heat until they become fragrant. Be careful not to burn them. This should take about 2-3 minutes. Let them cool.
Once cooled, grind the roasted spices into a coarse powder using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Set aside.
Prepare the Paneer:
Pour the milk into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat it over medium-high heat. Stir the milk occasionally to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
As the milk comes to a boil, add 2-3 tablespoons of lemon juice or white vinegar gradually while stirring continuously. You'll notice that the milk starts to curdle, and the whey (a greenish liquid) separates from the curdled milk solids.
Once the milk has fully curdled and you can see clear separation between the curds and whey, remove the pan from heat. You can add a pinch of salt to enhance the flavour, but it's optional.
Place a clean cotton cloth over a large strainer or colander.
Carefully pour the curdled milk into the cloth to separate the curds from the whey.
Gather the corners of the cloth and tie them together to form a bundle.
Suspend the cloth bundle over a sink or a container to allow the whey to drain out. You can tie the cloth to a kitchen faucet or a hook.
Let it drain for about 30 minutes or until most of the whey has been removed.
After draining, you can press the paneer under a heavy weight for about 2 hours. This helps in removing excess whey and making the paneer firmer.
Place a heavy pan or a couple of cans on top of the cloth-wrapped paneer to press it gently.
Once the paneer is set and has a firm texture, unwrap it from the cloth.
You can now cut the paneer into cubes or crumble it as needed for your recipe.
Making the Kadai Paneer:
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a kadai or a heavy-bottomed pan on medium heat.
Add the finely chopped onions and sauté until they turn translucent and slightly browned.
Stir in the ginger-garlic paste and sauté for another 1-2 minutes until the raw aroma disappears.
Add the diced green bell pepper (capsicum) and cook for about 2-3 minutes until they begin to soften but still retain some crunch.
Add the finely chopped tomatoes and cook until they become soft and the oil starts to separate. This may take around 5-7 minutes.
Stir in the turmeric powder, red chilli powder, ground coriander, and salt. Mix well and cook for another 2 minutes.
Add the Kadai Masala powder and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes, stirring continuously.
Now, gently add the cubed paneer and mix it well with the masala. Be careful not to break the paneer cubes.
Sprinkle garam masala over the mixture and stir it in.
Cook for another 2-3 minutes until the paneer is well coated with the masala and everything is heated through.
Garnish with freshly chopped coriander leaves.
Serve hot with naan, roti, or steamed rice. Enjoy your homemade Kadai Paneer!
Feel free to adjust the spice level to your preference by varying the amount of red chilli powder and dried red chilies in the Kadai Masala.