Saag paneer is one of those staple dishes every Indian takeout offers across the States and the UK. Why? That’s because saag paneer is a unique, delicious, and beautiful dinner option that vegetarians and meat-lovers both adore.
However, good Indian takeout is notoriously expensive and calorie-heavy. Even the vegetarian options have loads of cream or are deep-fried to appeal to the Western tastebuds. Tragedy.
BUT! With this super-easy recipe, you can make a vegan-friendly version at home for less money, less calories, and just as much flavor.
Saag or saga is a leaf-based dish eaten in India served with bread such as roti or naan, or rice. Most commonly made with spinach, the saag can also be made from mustard leaves, finely chopped broccoli, or other greens in addition to spices and other ingredients.
It has the thickness and texture of a tomato sauce, made from pulsing the leafy greens and cooking them with spices and often cream or coconut milk. People often prepare saag with paneer, which is a thick, mild cheese popular in India. Chicken, goat, or potatoes are other popular ingredients paired with saag.
This hearty, flavorful dish is packed with vitamins and minerals, making it a wholesome meal that anyone could easily enjoy. With just a few exchanges, vegan saag tofu is the perfect fix for a healthier restaurant version that’s also good for the planet. Check out the recipe below, and more step-by-step instructions below that!
This thick and aromatic spinach dish is a spin off a favorite Indian dish – using tofu instead of paneer cheese. Serve with rice, naan or roasted vegetables.
Wrap the tofu in a paper towel, place flat on a rimmed plate or baking dish, and place a flat, heavy item on top to press. (Note: both the bottom dish and the weighted item will get wet). Let the water drain from the tofu for 15-20 minutes.
Combine the turmeric, curry powder, garam masala, cumin, cayenne pepper, ground black pepper, and salt. Save this spice mixture for the tofu and the saag.
In a food processor or powerful blender, pulse the spinach, 2 Tbsp. olive oil, garlic, ginger paste, green onion, and cilantro until the mixture is a fine paste (like tomato sauce). Add half the spice mixture, and pulse a few more times.
Cube the tofu in 1/2 in. cubes, and discard the juice. In a large rimmed saucepan, add 1 Tbsp. olive oil, tofu, and 1/2 the remaining spice mixture. Let the tofu cook on medium-high until it becomes slightly crispy or brown on the sides (8-10 minutes). Turn the heat to medium-low and add the saag and coconut milk. Stir gently to combine, and let the mixture warm to a simmer (10-15 minutes). Add the remaining spice mixture and salt and pepper to taste, and cook for 5 minutes longer or until the saag is aromatic.
Making the saag can be intimidating if you’ve never made it before. But really, there’s no reason to let this step feel more daunting than it is – you’re literally just pulsing the vegetables into a sauce.
I use a food processor, but this could also work with a powerful blender. If after pulsing the spinach and green onion together for over two minutes the mixture is still rough and grainy, add a tablespoon of water at a time.
Don’t have fresh spinach? Try frozen spinach (thawed), or use kale, mustard greens, or another dark leafy green. No matter what you start with, you want to aim for a thick, finely pulsed sauce that resembles tomato sauce. The image above is a good indicator of the texture you’re looking for.
Browning the tofu is a difficult step for me because I often don’t want to wait as long as I should to let it get crispy. Medium heat is a safe temperature to let the tofu brown without burning or drying out too quickly. When I’m in a rush, I will pump it to high heat and keep a closer eye on it – this typically involves a lot of scraping the spices off the bottom of the pan.
Not a vegan? Or do you just hate tofu? (Either answer is acceptable).
Make this with chicken, goat, or lamb for extra protein. If you’re following a climate change diet and can’t find local meat, potatoes are another great substitute. CAUTION: If you choose potatoes, make sure the potatoes cubes are cooked all the way through before you add the saag.
If you’re looking to cut back on fat in your diet, you can reduce the amount of coconut milk you add. I’ve tried homemade saag tofu several times: just saag and water, half a can of coconut milk, almond milk, and a full can of coconut milk. What you do is 100% your personal preference. A full can of coconut milk is Zack’s and my favorite because the saag has a thick, creamy texture that comes closest to what we would get from out local takeout.
Keep in mind – how much milk you add will impact the spices. The recipe I have for vegan saag paneer has you mix the spices together before adding them – I wrote the recipe this way so that you can control how much spice you want to add. If you add less milk, you need less spice. If you’re someone who LOVES spice (like myself and Zack), you can at 50% of each spice.
HINT: For a more full spice, add 2 tsp. cumin seed to the pan when you’re browning the tofu.