Recipe: Tamil Tofu with Raisins

This recipe comes from a co-worker in Saudi Arabia, who grew up in Sri Lanka.  It is rich with spices in a combination we don't often use for American cooking.  It is quick to make and the ingredients are cheap (less than $10, depending on local prices and how you purchase and stock your spices).  Our family makes a deliberate effort to limit the animal products in our diet, and this a favorite meal in the weekly rotation.  The recipe as given here is vegan, although you could substitute chicken or lamb for the tofu, if you are so inclined.  

Tamil Tofu with Raisins

1 package of tofu, extra firm or pressed at home
1 medium red onion, roughly diced
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
3/4 cup raisins, plumped in warm water
1 T ground cumin seed
1 T ground coriander seed
1 T "Ceylon" or Sri Lankan cinnamon
1/2 t ground cayenne
about 1 T of vegetable oil (peanut, sesame, or your favorite)
6 oz coconut milk, fresh or canned
soy sauce

To press the tofu at home, remove and drain the block, wrap it in cheesecloth, place it in a dinner plate, and weigh it down with a cast iron skillet or stack of plates.  Periodically drain off the extracted liquid.  This should take about an hour, depending on the moisture content in the tofu.  Prepare the tofu by cutting it into 1/2" cubes and sprinkling about 1 T of soy sauce over it.  

Pressed tofu.

Prepare the raisins in a separate container by covering them with warm water for at least 30 minutes.  Drain off and discard the water.  

Prepare the spice mixture by adding all four spices, the onion, and the garlic to a dry Dutch oven.  I usually don't measure the spices exactly, but use a large soup spoon to measure equal amounts of cumin, coriander, and cinnamon.  And lately, I have been adjusting the amount of cayenne down, because my toddler enjoys this meal and he is still getting used to eating foods with a lot of heat.  

Ready to dry fry the spices and aromatics.

It's also worth mentioning that, although many recipes say "one teaspoon" of this or that spice, the quality and intensity of spices in markets can vary greatly.  Some bottled spices have been treated or processed with heat, which kills flavor, and they sit and age on grocery store shelves.  If you don't have access to a specialty shop or market, the next best thing is usually an Asian market or the bulk bins at a place like Whole Foods.  It can sometimes be economical to buy better spices in the exact quantity you need, and use less in recipes.    

Okay, with that said, stir and toss the spice mixture over medium heat until toasted and sticky, and the cooking surface is just beginning to smoke.  Add the vegetable oil and stir to coat the onions. 

After adding the vegetable oil.

After the onions begin to soften, add the coconut milk and soy sauce to taste to deglaze the pan.  And just a quick word about coconut milk (are you liking these digressions?) should try different types and decide what you like and what fits your budget.  We have found great "fresh" coconut milk in the refrigerated section of a local Asian market.  But I also love the price and fat content of the canned store brand from our local organic grocer, Earth Fare.  It is from cultivated coconut groves in Hawaii, so no issues with orang utan habitat.  I like that.  

Okay, turn the heat down to low and fold in the raisins and tofu.  Simmer 20-30 minutes covered, then serve over rice.   


With the tofu added.

I like to use sticky rice with this dish, because it holds up better under the thick coconut milk sauce, and it's easier for my son to pick up.  To get perfectly sticky rice, choose a shorter grain or "glutinous" type like arborio or Japanese rice and cook it either in a rice cooker or in a flat-bottomed pot with a tight fitting lid.  No peeking!