From dal tadka to chana masala to cauliflower gobi manchurian, Indian cuisine offers an incredibly diverse array of delicious plant-based options. While butter and cream do appear in many vegetarian Indian dishes, other sauces are made thick and creamy without dairy by soaking and pureeing nuts. Having ancient roots dating back thousands of years, plant-based Indian food has in many ways evolved as a distinct culinary tradition independent of its mainstream meat-centric counterpart. This means that, for all the delicious veggie options this cuisine offers, you’re unlikely to find veganized versions of popular meat-based Indian dishes at restaurants, even if they could be adapted easily with simple swaps using ingredients and techniques already within the traditional Indian repertoire.
As someone who used to lick murgh makhani (aka butter chicken) sauce straight from the carry-out container, I was desperate to find a way to recreate this and other favorites without meat or dairy. Growing up practically within the boundaries of Chicago’s Little India along Devon Avenue, I’d been around Indian food my entire life and had even watched my friends’ moms prepare it, but trying to cook it myself in my own kitchen had always intimidated me. The flavors tasted so deep and complex that it seemed impossible to figure out how to recreate them without a lifetime of training. Going vegan, though, gave me the push I needed to just dive in and give it a try.
After reading through dozens of traditional butter chicken recipes, I finally developed this hearty dish that captures all the sweet, spicy, richness of butter chicken without any chicken or butter, and using whole food ingredients available at most standard grocery stores. While I’m not going to claim that it’s as good as your Indian grandmother’s rendition, I’m going to bet that it’s pretty darn close.
(Makes 4 servings)
- about 12 ounces vegan protein of your choice, cut into bite-sized chunks (This time, I used a combination of extra firm tofu cutlet and seitan. Tempeh or chickpeas, as well as any faux meat, would also work well. You can also add or swap in your favorite veggies, such as mushrooms or cauliflower. Just be mindful that softer add-ins may get a little mushy if cooked too long.)
- 1 container plain soy or other vegan yogurt
- 2 tsp garam masala spice mix (Available at most major grocery stores. Once you have it on hand, you’ll frequently find yourself reaching for it to add depth to everyday veggie sides.)
- 1 clove crushed or mashed garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon ginger paste
- Juice of 1/2 lime (This is to recreate the tanginess missing from soy yogurt.)
- 1/2 cup raw cashews
- 1 cup water
- Enough olive or coconut oil to thinly coat the bottom of your pan
- 1 small onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 tsp ginger paste
- At least 1 tablespoon garam masala (You can also use curry powder in a pinch, but the flavor will be less authentic.)
- 5 or 6 tomatoes, chopped
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast (completely optional, but I find this adds extra depth)
- Cayenne pepper, to taste
- Salt, to taste
- A dollop of margarine or coconut oil, or a splash of olive oil (optional)
- Combine marinade ingredients in a bowl and add protein. Set aside and leave to marinate while preparing sauce.
- In the meantime, set cashews and water on the stove in a small pot over medium heat and cover. Bring to a low boil and lower heat. Continue to simmer, covered, while preparing other components of the dish.
- Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add onion and cook over medium-low heat until translucent and beginning to caramelize.
- Add garlic, ginger paste, and garam masala. Stir and continue to saute until fragrant.
- Add chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, and a pinch of salt to the pan and stir to combine. The tomatoes will release a lot of liquid. Simmer for 30 minutes to an hour, until virtually all of the excess juices have evaporated and the tomatoes concentrate and darken in color. (You can leave the pan unattended and just check it periodically to stir.)
- Once mixture is reduced to a paste the consistency of jam, allow to cool slightly and combine in a blender with cashews and their liquid. Blend until creamy and the consistency of a thick soup, adding additional water by the quarter cup to thin if needed.
- Return to pan and add protein and any excess marinade. Simmer until heated through.
- Add cayenne (a couple of shakes for medium heat), nutritional yeast, if using, and a pinch of salt. Taste and adjust flavor, adding more garam masala if desired. Be mindful that the flavor and heat of the cayenne and garam masala will build with each bite, so take a few tastes before adding more. If the gravy still tastes like mild tomato sauce, then it needs to be spiced more aggressively. If it’s bitter or too spicy to comfortably eat, add a splash or water or non-dairy milk to mellow.
- Serve hot in bowls with basmati rice and/or naan. If desired, garnish each bowl with a bit of margarine or coconut oil, or a splash of oil to be stirred in at the table.