'P' for paneer

Often dubbed as the ‘vegetarian’s meat’, paneer is the most versatile kitchen ingredient, writes Sushmita Murthy

Paneer readily takes on the flavours added to it.

Paneer, or Indian cottage cheese, is perhaps the undisputed component in Indian vegetarian cooking. Paneer butter masala, palak paneer, matar paneer, paneer tikka, methi paneer, shahi paneer — the sheer number of dishes that this humble ingredient lends itself to make it the quintessential star Indian ingredient. So much so that a non-paneer-eating vegetarian is often looked at with much suspicion (by non-vegetarian foodies) and almost pity at the thought of being deprived of the one great vegetarian delight.

But did you know that this desi item may have foreign roots, after all? Chef Rajat Chandna informs that the Portuguese may have introduced us to it. “The Portuguese introduced the technique of breaking milk with acid in Bengal in the 17th century. Thus, Indian acid-set cheeses such as paneer and chhena were first prepared in Bengal, under Portuguese influence. The word ‘paneer’ must have originated either from the Persian word ‘panir’ or from the Turkish word ‘peynir’.”

But this is one of the many theories that surround paneer, as chef Rohit Pushpavanam clarifies. “There are various stories of its origin and the earliest claims are that they are mentioned in the Vedas. Some say that Afghan and Iranian warriors introduced paneer in India, and some claim that the Portuguese introduced the idea in Bengal in the 17th century.”

So what is it about this split-milk preparation that makes it so irresistible to the common Indian palate? It is perhaps the fact that it doesn’t have any flavour of its own. As Chef Rohit points out, “Paneer readily takes on the flavours added to it. This means that it can be made in different ways with a host of different ingredients; it’s versatile. It can be made mild as well as spicy, depending on how you like it.” Hence, there’s a variety of paneer dishes flooding the Indian kitchen. North India loves its dairy treats — ghee, chaas, lassi, butter, and paneer adds to the list.

Often dubbed as the ‘vegetarian’s meat’, paneer has a distinct chewy property that adds to its appeal for some. Apart from that, it has great nutrient value, too. It is rich in calcium and protein and therefore aids in many body processes. It helps to maintain blood sugar levels and also helps in strengthening teeth and bones.

While making paneer...

* First and foremost, you need to be very careful while splitting the milk to prepare paneer.

* You must not boil the milk a lot after adding lemon or vinegar.

* For soft paneer, you can add boiled water to roasted paneer.

* There are two types of paneer available in the market — soft and hard. Hard paneer lasts longer than soft, so buy it as per your cooking schedule.

* Soft paneer works well for salads and hard paneer works well for snacks and gravy dishes.

* Paneer breaks easily, hence while cooking you must add it at the end; don’t stir with paneer in the pan.

* Only use fresh paneer and keep it covered in water to retain its freshness.

RECIPE

OLIVE PANEER TIKKA 

Olive paneer tikka
Olive paneer tikka

Ingredients:

Black olives: 100 gm

Green olives: 100 gm

Tomato: 50 gm

Onion: 50 gm

Cumin: 10 gm

Fresh coriander: 20 gm

Paneer: 400 gm

Curd: 50 gm

Ginger: 60 gm

Garlic: 60 gm

Yellow chilli powder: 10 gm

Cheddar cheese: 10 gm

Method:

Chop the olives and make a mixture by adding cheese, tomatoes and seasonings.

Cut paneer into big cubes and core the centre by using corer.

Fill the mixture in the core and keep it in the fridge for 30 minutes to set.

Marinate the stuffed paneer cubes with curd and spice mixture and cook them in a tandoor or an oven.

Serve hot with salad and chutney.

Courtesy: Chef Rajat Chandna, Alila Fort Bishangarh

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