Saag Tofu: Indian Spiced Tofu in Spinach Sauce

I’ve been really hot for ugly food lately.  From the yellowish brown Jamaican curry to the reddish brown French stew, and the thin beige soup to the greenish brown Persian stew, I am fully aware that this site will not win any awards for our sense of the aesthete.  Get ready, because you’re about to be hit with another ugly little gem.

If I had to make a list of all the things that I love in the world, apart from the fact that it would be unbearably long and fraught with about 46 different types of cheese, it’s a fair bet to say that the Top 10 would most definitely include:

  1. Mike
  2. My family
  3. Tricking Mike without any rhyme or reason
  4. My fabulous friends
  5. Wine glasses the size of fish bowls
  6. Taunting Mike into eating surprise mystery foods
  7. Our cats — even the bad one
  8. Sassy heels
  9. Jokes involving penguins
  10. Lying to Mike about what I tricked and taunted him into eating, just for giggles

Don’t feel too sorry for him, however.  I think he’s a lucky man, showing up 40% of the time on today’s list of Top 10 Things That Tina Loves.  After all, it’s not like my little milky white lies are causing him any damage or irreversible pain.  I just like to trick him into eating tofu (and occasionally organ meat) when he least suspects it.  On the list of culinary sins, this is a far cry from feeding Siu Mai to a good friend with a seafood allergy, or inadvertently serving beans simmered in ham stock to a vegan colleague at a pot luck.  Not that I’ve done either, of course….heh…heh?

I simply adore Indian food, and I’ve been craving Saag Paneer (Indian cheese simmered in creamy spinach sauce) for a couple weeks now.  Like Chana Masala, this is one of those dishes that I am compelled to order every time we get Indian take out, and I have developed a disconcerting habit of layering it both under and over the rice so as to disguise the fact that I’m hoarding half the container on my plate.  I had all of the ingredients on hand to make it at home, but there was just one wee little problem.  I had gone to make the paneer and it just didn’t set.  At all.  That mess of granular dairy was sorrowful enough to make ricott sit up and beg, so it was absolutely unusable in a dish where I needed a firm brick of unripened cheese.  And here enters my favorite activity, tricking Mike, and my old friend tofu…..

Tofu and paneer have a couple of similarities.  They’re both white.  They’re both moderately firm.  They both enjoy getting simmered on a flavorful bed of spiced creamed spinach, and they both willingly take on whatever flavors they are offered.  Where the similarity ends is in terms of texture and flavor.  Paneer is thick, slightly chewy but rich and dense.  The flavor is creamy and just barely sweet, like fresh milk.  Tofu, on the other hand, is a spongy and occasionally slightly bitter vehicle for whatever it happens to run into.  Oddly, I’m okay with that.

This is a lovely quick dish which goes from counter to table in just over a half hour.  It has been known to satisfy the carnivores as well as the vegetarians in your group, and there’s something that’s just rather moreish in the fragrantly spiced creamy spinach sauce.  But I should also mention that because I am what I am, there are a few tweaks and tears to make this a less traditional dish.  The most glaring of which is the choice of dairy.  Saag Paneer is normally made with a cup or more of full fat cream and a goodly dollop of yogurt.  Tina don’t roll that way.  This lightened up version is entirely dependent on yogurt for creaminess and dairy-licious flavor, so try to use the richest and boldest yogurt that you have.  Or, of course, you could always make your own……

Saag Tofu:  Indian Spiced Tofu in Spinach Sauce

Serves 4 with rice and naan

  • 1 lb (450 g) extra firm tofu
  • 4 tbsp oil, divided
  • 4 large cloves garlic (about 1 tbsp chopped)
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 2″ chunk root ginger
  • 1 lb (~450 g) fresh spinach *
  • 1.5 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp garam masala **
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne
  • 1 cup yogurt
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • salt and pepper to taste

* If you prefer you can use chopped frozen spinach.  Be sure to thaw it completely and squeeze out most of the water before it goes in the pan.

** So what if your spice rack doesn’t look like you work as a carjacker on the Silk Road?  Garam masala is a nice catch all, and if all that you have are garam masala and cumin you will still do just fine, but be sure to increase the amount accordingly to a maximum of 2.5 teaspoons.

Cut the tofu into 1 inch chunks.  Pat the cubes dry and spread them out to continue drying for another 15 minutes.  Rather than spend that time twiddling your thumbs, you could always give a thin chop to the onions and finely mince the peeled garlic and ginger.

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a saucepan set over high heat.  If you have a non-stick saucepan, all the better.  When the oil is hot enough that it is just starting to smoke, add the tofu and toss it around.  Stir the tofu frequently because IT WILL stick, even in a nonstick pan.  Pan fry the tofu cubes for about 5 minutes, or until at least 2-3 sides of each cube are nicely golden and each one of the other sides has at least touched the pan.  I don’t like to brown the whole cube, because the softer and whiter/uncooked areas might not provide a lot of textural interest to the dish, but they certainly do wonders to soak up the flavors of the finished dish.

Set the tofu aside to cool and wipe down your skillet if there are any crusty or stuck bits.

Pour the remaining oil (2 tbsp) into the same skillet and turn the heat down to medium low.  Add the onions and garlic and saute for 4-6 minutes, or until the onion is soft and golden.

Give a good chop to the spinach.  It looks like quite the pile, doesn’t it?  That will reduce to a negligible amount in the pan though, so have no fear.

Add half of the spinach to the pan and toss it with the onions and garlic.  Let this cook together, turning it over occasionally, for 3-5 minutes or until the spinach is wilted.  We do this step because you won’t be able to fit all of that uncooked spinach in your pan at the same time.

Toss the remaining uncooked spinach with the greens you have just wilted and stir in the spices.  Season the pan with salt and pepper.  Cook the spinach and spices together for about 10 minutes, or until the spinach is quite soft and starting to look stewed.  If the pan looks like it is drying out, add a tablespoon of water or two and continue cooking.

Dollop in the yogurt and add the tofu pieces.  Stir the mixture until it is well combined and continue to simmer this for 5-10 minutes more.  Again, if it looks like the mixture is starting to dry out you can add a wee splash of water to keep things moist.

Just before serving, squeeze in the juice of half a lemon and stir it through.  Taste the mixture and season with more salt and pepper as you see fit.

Garnish the saag tofu with a sprinkle of finely diced tomato for grace.  There is absolutely nothing good to be said for winter tomatoes, but thankfully they can slip through in a dish like this where their main value is for color and a bit of texture and tang rather than being the star of the show.

Serve the saag tofu piping hot over a pile of fluffy basmati rice with fresh and warm naan bread and maybe some mixed pickle on the side.

….Or a lot of mixed pickle on the side.  I swear, I could eat that stuff straight out of the jar with a soup spoon.  Heh.  I make it sound like I *don’t*.

Those of you who remember The Tofu Tribunal probably already know that Mike is..ehm….less than a fan of bean curd.  I have managed to trick him into eating (and enjoying) soft tofu as a curried dill dip, vegetarian mouSUCKAH!, and sweet, frosty creamy vegan plumsicles.  However, this is the first time in the last two years that I have tried to coax him into eating large blocks of clearly recognizable tofu.  He knew immediately what was going on.

That said, the man was powering through the meal like it was his god given duty.  I had to stop him and (gulp) ask, “Uh….hey, so, like, you know that’s….um….okay, so that’s not paneer.”

His fork didn’t even pause in the air.  “Yeah, I know.  It’s tofu.  But it’s good.”

Seriously.  Just like that.  Not to look a gift horse in the mouth or anything, but hey, OPEN WIDE, Quickdraw McGraw.  “I don’t get it.  You hate tofu.  You always complain about tofu.  You even complain when I haven’t made tofu but you know that I thought about it and gave it due consideration.  I don’t understand why you’re not whingeing right now.”

He blinked, looked down at his plate and looked back at me. “Because it doesn’t taste like tofu.  It tastes like sauce.”

That’s good enough for me……

  • Kristie

    Does tofu even have a “taste?” Make him some panang tofu, would you? It’s been one of my most frequent foods as of late (twice a week, about) and it tastes all like sauce which is kind of the point. What a nice, long-suffering, tofu-eating husband-to-be you have!

  • Kristie

    P.S. Your rice photographed really well. I didn’t know that was possible.

  • eileen

    Hmm, I wonder what happened with your paneer? I’ve used this recipe several times, and never had any problems. However, I can definitely see tofu sucking up the sauce and being delicious!

    Another thing: palak paneer has cream in it? and yogurt? I totally use a recipe without either, and it is still great. A bit more tomato-y than restaurant palak paneer, but still. You should try it! Over here.

  • lo

    Oh, gosh. We make saag with tofu all the time… and it’s so good.
    I’m convinced tofu becomes a different animal when you crisp it up in oil and douse a sauce over it. Not QUITE as good as paneer… but pretty close.

    I’m thinking Kristie’s on the right track with that panang tofu idea… it’s making me all drooly.

  • Kulsum

    Totally lost …I thought I had posted a comment long back ? Did I ?

    here is goes

    I love Paneer and I hate Tofu! So I’m not sure how I feel about saag tofu. But why I hate tofu is
    I never had it except for once where I had it just as it is without any flavouring.

    I could be wrong here but I would call this ” palak tofu” rather then saag. Normally Saag is refered to
    spinach and mustard leaves sauce and just spinach is referred to as Palak. thats how it is
    originally but many restuarants tend to mix it up. So there is nothing right may be !! Either way it
    looks delicious …just the TOFU …hmmm

  • M

    We made this for dinner last night and it was fantastic! Thank you for providing yet another delicious recipe.

    • Tina

      M – we’re so glad that you enjoyed this!! Thank you very much for letting us know! Mike will be very disappointed to hear that he’s losing The War Against Tofu, one person at a time 🙂

      • Mike


  • Brian

    This recipe is great. I just cut meat out from most of my diet and have been on the lookout for some good vegetarian dishes. I am so glad I found this. It’s tasty, healthy, easy, and best of all, CHEAP! Thanks!

  • Jenn

    I’m a year late to the party, but I made this tonight and it was so very tasty. Thanks for all your recipes – I’ve made probably a dozen things off of this website and they’ve all been fantastic (well, I screwed up the salted caramel cashew tart, but that was my own damn fault, and it still ended up pretty yummy). It’s become my go-to place if I’m making supper for someone and want to impress!