Paneer, the food of special occasions, of weddings, festivals and Sunday feasts at the temple. It can be used in a variety of dishes but what we wanted most was matar paneer – a Punjabi dish of deep fried paneer served in a tomato sauce with lots of peas. We bought litres and litres of milk from the farmer near the island and then wrestled the enormous metal churn into a rowing boat. God help you if the churn leaked in the boot of your car. The sour smell would linger for months, even after a valet service. The milk was boiled in a pot big enough to bathe several children in and stirred with a spoon closer in size to an oar. It was curdled with lemon juice or citric acid and strained through a big piece of muslin before being pressed under the weight of the pot of whey and then deep fried. The whey was kept and used to make the puris with and cook the rice in. Waste not, want not, we always said.
On the rare occasions that the paneer wasn’t fried, we shook our heads. Did the kitchen team run out of oil or of time or were they being lazy? Or had the person in charge of the paneer not been ‘properly trained’, a criticism which my mother levels at people at times, conveying significant disapproval.
‘More often than not… it is fried until brown’ according to Yamuna. ‘The ability of paneer to be deep fried is one feature that has led to its wider acceptance and a favourite for making snacks, pakoras or fried paneer chunks’ (Aneja 2007). I agree and feel it should always be fried but it seems quite a lot of people don’t. Dishoom’s recipe is very simple with very few spices and the paneer isn’t fried. Dassana Amit of Veg Recipes of India doesn’t fry hers either. Meera Sodha does along with Maunika Gowardan and Madhur Jaffery.
I get very annoyed if mattar paneer comes in a very sweet cream sauce that is more like a dessert and yellow in colour and doesn’t contain even a hint of tomato. This is how it arrived from a local takeaway recently. (Yes, we have takeaway sometimes. We both work full-time.) ‘BLACK LIST THEM!,’ I shrieked! ‘BLACK LIST THEM! LET US NEVER ORDER FROM THEM AGAIN!’
We move into a slightly odd territory when people try to describe paneer. Yamuna goes to some pains to try and describe it, citing queso blanco/queso fresco which mean nothing to me but no doubt meant something to her American readers. It’s often referred to a cottage cheese on menus but it’s not cottage cheese, at least as we know it. It’s not cellulite-y and it doesn’t come in a plastic tub either. Referring to it as cottage cheese invokes a lot of troubling imagery. What sort of lunatic puts a tub of cottage cheese in curry? We’re back to Bertrand Russell and the symbolism and cultural weight that cheese carries in different languages. Of existing cheeses, it’s probably closest to halloumi in texture when cooked but it is not as salty. It’s a fresh unaged, unsalted cheese that’s quite crumbly and doesn’t melt. I like this definition – ‘Paneer is marble white in appearance, having firm, cohesive and spongy body with a close-knit texture and a sweetish-acidic-nutty flavour’ (Kumar, Rai, Niranjan and Bhat, 2014: 821).
In it’s unpressed state, it’s called chenna and can be used to make savoury dishes like malai kofta and sweets like sandesh, rasagulla and ras malai. Chenna is kneaded until creamy to make sandesh and laced with strands of saffron. Fried then soaked in a sugar syrup, the best rasagullas squeak as you bite into them. Ras malai are similar but are served in a sweet cream sauce with pistachios.
Paneer was consumed during the Kusana and Saka Satavahana periods (AD 75–300) (Mathur, Hashizume, Musumi, Nakazawa, Watanabe, 1986; Mathur, 1991). Iranian nomads also ate a cheese called paneer-khiki. Paneer is the Hindi name for the seeds of the withans coagulans plant, which is used as a rennet in cheese making. (Kumar, Rai, Niranjan & Bhat, 2014). Interestingly, the Turkish eat a cheese called peynir. It is salty and rather closer to feta.
It is suggested that the Portuguese brought cheese to Bengal. This strikes me as a bit odd if soft cheese was already being made in the Indian sub-continent. The tenth canto of the Bhagavata Purana, which significantly pre-dates the arrival of the Portuguese in India, mentions sweets made of chenna, whereby Krishna asks his family to make sandesh to celebrate a festival. (The Portuguese did however introduce their egg custard desserts to India.)
And that is what I associate this dish with – festivals. This is Kurma’s recipe from Great Vegetarian Dishes. The blend of spices and herbs evokes something very specific for me so there’s no point tinkering with it, bar some very small changes.
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
5 teaspoons cumin seeds
3 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated
4 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground fennel
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1 tablespoon mint, fresh or dried
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
250g frozen peas
2 blocks of paneer or 4 litres’ worth paneer
- Heat two tablespoons of oil and add the black mustard seeds. When they start to crackle, add the grated ginger, followed by the rest of the spices. Stir to prevent sticking or scorching. Reduce or remove from the heat if needed.
- Add the chopped tomatoes and peas and leave to simmer. Add a pinch of chili if desired.
- While the sauce simmers, fry the cubes of paneer. I usually cook them on a teflon crepe pan but you can also shallow or deep fry them. Once the cubes are cooked, put them straight into the sauce to keep them soft.
- Garnish with the mint and serve with rice and puris. This subji keeps well in the fridge and freezes nicely too.
Jakobson, R. (1967) ‘On Linguistic Aspects of Translation’ in Brower, R.A (2013) On Translation Boston: Harvard University Press. Available at: https://web.stanford.edu/~eckert/PDF/jakobson.pdf
Mathur BN, Hashizume K, Musumi S, Nakazawa Y, Watanabe T (1986) Traditional cheese “paneer” in India and soybean food “tofu” in Japan. Japanese Journal of Dairy Food Science 35:138–141
Mathur BN (1991) Indigenous milk products of India: the related research and technological requirements. Indian Dairyman 42:61–74
Kumar, S., Rai, D.C., Niranjan, K. & Bhat, Z. (2014) Paneer—An Indian soft cheese variant: a review. Journal of Food Science Technology 51, 821–831 https://doi.org/10.1007/s13197-011-0567-x