Any food with soy sauce, vinegar, chilli sauce, ginger and garlic is considered “Chinese” food in India. This combination of ingredients has given rise to a whole genre of food in the Indian subcontinent called “Indo-Chinese” food. Needless to say, the People’s Republic of China have never heard of most of the things that fall into the “Indo-Chinese” category of food. So, what I’m trying to say is that it is a made up style of “Chinese” food in India much like the made up “Indian” food here in England except for the teeny-tiny fact that the former is actually quite tasty (pa dam pum tshhhh!).
While Indo-Chinese food is a pretend food, it is very very popular in streets and restaurants all over India. In Bangalore, where I grew up, it is not unusual to see a guy vending these yummy delights out of the back of a covered auto-rickshaw or tuk-tuk. He usually has an array of finely chopped vegetables all neatly arranged in boxes and a huge wok on a portable stove in which he cooks them. Funnily enough, they tend to be exclusively vegetarian, with only the most adventurous ones treading into the fungus world by sporting mushrooms alongside the array of vegetables. (Note: Some orthodox Hindu members of my mum’s extended family will not eat mushrooms as they think its neither a vegetable nor an animal so best to stay away from it.)
Coming back to the main story, these street vendors and several established restaurants have the following popular Indo-chinese dishes on their menu – Gobi Manchurian (cauliflower from Manchuria clearly), Paneer Manchurian (cottage cheese instead of cauliflower), Vegetable Manchurian, Babycorn manchurian, Vegetable friend rice, Vegetable fried noodles and so on. My fondest memories of Indo-Chinese food are from the months of the monsoon rains in Bangalore. Family friends of ours would pick up some of these saucy, spicy delights and bring them over to our house to share. We’d spend the evening in the warm indoors getting even warmer with every little bite of spicy, “Chinese” vegetable.
Paneer is one of the very few cheeses made in India. It a fresh cheese and is the Indian form of cottage cheese. The main difference is that paneer is drained to remove much of its moisture content and is compacted into a hard block that can be cut into cubes and added into various curries.
Chilli paneer is an Indo-Chinese dish and I use the name interchangeably with Paneer Machurian. It is cubes of paneer sauteed (or fried) in oil and then tossed in a stirfry made with soy, vinegar, tomato sauce, ginger, garlic, chillies, capsicum (green peppers) and onions. It can be enjoyed on its own as an evening snack with your favourite pint or shot of spirits. Alternatively, it can be consumed with any form of flat bread. If you add water to it to make it more liquid-y, it can even be eaten with rice.
Here is my take on Chilli Paneer/Dry Paneer Manchurian. Remember – the spicier, the better. Hope you like it!
Ingredients (serves 4 easily):
250 grams of paneer or Indian cottage cheese, chopped into 1cm by 2.5 cm cubes (see pictures 5&6)
1 large green pepper/capsicum chopped into long, thin slices (Picture 1, top right corner)
1 large onion (red is preferred but white will do) chopped into long, this slices (Picture 1, middle)
2-3 sprigs of spring onion, chopped to retain only the green and soft white parts (optional – Picture 1, bottom-left)
3-4 hot green chillies, chopped finely (Pictures 2 & 3)
5 cloves of garlic, chopped finely (Pictures 2 & 3)
2 ” (5cm) cube of fresh ginger, chopped finely (Pictures 2 & 3)
2 tbps of cornflour + 1 extra tbsp dissolved in water to make a smooth paste (Picture 4)
4 tbps of tomato ketchup
2 tbsp of white vinegar
3 tbsp of light soy sauce
1/2 tbps of brown sugar
2-3 tbps of vegetable oil for frying
salt to suit your taste
fresh sprigs of coriander, extra sliced green chilli and spring onions for decoration
1. Toss the cubes of paneer in 2tbps of cornflour so that the flour sticks lightly to their surface.
2. In a large wok, heat 2 tbsp of oil and sauté the flour-coated paneer cubes in it until they turn a lovely golden brown (Pictures 5&6)
3. Drain the fried paneer on kitchen towels to absorb excess grease (Picture 6).
4. Return the wok to the heat and add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the wok. Now sauté the peppers, onions and spring onions for approximately 5 minutes or until the vegetables have gone soft and start to turn colour (Picture 7).
5. Add the finely chopped chillies, ginger and garlic to the sauce and cook for 2 minutes or until the raw smell of the ginger and garlic no longer linger (Picture 8).
6. Add the tomato sauce, vinegar, soy sauce and sugar to the vegetables and mix until well combined (Pictures 9 & 10). Taste the sauce and if you like it more tangy, add more vinegar. If you like it more salty, add more soy sauce. If you like it sweeter, add more ketchup or sugar. Overall, get it to how you like it.
7. Add the cooked paneer to the vegetable sauce and mix until the sauce is evenly spread over all the paneer pieces (Picture 10).
8. To the paneer-vegetable mix, add the cornflour liquid (Picture 11) and mix well. This should make the sauce cling even more firmly to the paneer than before. Cook the mixture for a further 5 minutes until bits of paneer coated in the sauce start to go slightly crispy.
9. Remove the chilli paneer off the heat and place in a serving bowl. Before serving, scatter fresh coriander, more sliced green chillies and sliced spring onions over the chilli paneer.
10. Serve while hot as a snack on its own or with flat bread such as tortillas or rotis.
1. The cornflour liquid made the chilli paneer quite sticky. I personally didn’t like that so feel free to omit this step if you are like me.
2. Paneer can be substituted by firm tofu, partially steamed cauliflower, baby corn or mushrooms to make this dish vegan-friendly.
3. In India, MSG – Monosodium glutamate (Chinese salt or Aji-no-moto) is commonly used as a taste enhancer in Indo-Chinese food. I’ve left it out of my recipe but feel free to add some if you’d like. While there is a lot of hype about how MSG is bad for you, there is no scientific literature/evidence proving this in any great detail. From my understanding, an excessive use of MSG has similar effects to an excess use of salt (Sodium chloride) so if you are watching your blood pressure, watch your salt – no matter what kind it is.