Banality of ubiquitous paneer

Banality of ubiquitous paneer

It’s not apocryphal but a true anecdote that appeared in now defunct The Illustrated Weekly of India. When world-renowned British chef Sir Gordon Ramsay visited India for the first time in the early eighties, he evinced interest in trying out India’s signature vegetarian dishes.

Well, the legend with the most discerning palate on earth was served shahi paneer (cottage cheese), dum-aloo, Kashmiri vegetable kofta, spicy jack-fruit curry, among others. He liked all, at least ostensibly. He visited India again after a brace of years and wanted to taste the veg fare but very politely requested the 5-star management to serve all barring paneer and any of its avatar, popular among the Indian vegetarians!

Being a vegetarian, I subscribe to Ramsay’s not-so-complimentary culinary perception about the famed paneer preparations in India. To be honest, paneer is a vegetarian’s inadequate answer to any non-vegetarian dish. It’s rubbery and has no taste of its own. Just remove chunks of paneer from any dish and taste a cube sans the gravy. You’ll find no taste.

Paneer assumes taste because of the gravy and spices that anyway can’t penetrate into it. Its taste is completely dependent upon the quality of the gravy. That’s why, in the parlance of hotel management and catering, a paneer preparation is often called as ‘incongruous dish’ or derogatorily, ‘a fried tyre!’ It sure is an ‘incongruous dish’ because paneer cubes and the gravy are never in harmony.

Though Punjabis are credited to have concocted paneer dishes rather recently (say, a little over 125 years ago), Madhur Jaffrey mentioned in her Royal Kitchens that, according to Abul Fazal’s Aine-Akbari, Mughals were aware of paneer because Emperor Akbar’s favourite Hindu khaansama (chef) Ratilal prepared a couple of items that contained cottage cheese as the king was rather inclined towards vegetarianism.

But even Akbar didn’t appreciate it much. After a long lull, paneer was resuscitated by the Nawabs of Avadh for their vegetarian guests. Today’s shahi paneer was actually a gastronomical concoction of the polymath Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. He prepared this while incarcerated at Matiaburz in Calcutta (oh, Kolkata) by the English. But the greatest irony is that Wajid Ali Shah himself didn’t like his own preparation and he called it Beswaad-e-azeem (the most tasteless thing!).

I’m sure, the lovers and connoisseurs of paneer are fuming, frothing and frowning but the fact remains that paneer doesn’t hold a candle to any non-veg dish and is even inferior to a well-cooked dum-aloo or spicy jackfruit curry.

Yet, you’re free to have paneer to your heart’s content. May the clan of paneer lovers increase by leaps and bounds. By the way, tofu (made of soya milk) is becoming more popular among vegetarians nowadays because it’s softer and also soaks gravy to some extent. Besides, it’s light on stomach unlike paneer.

Do you know why paneer tastes so watery? Because, it’s name is a combination of ‘paani’ and ‘neer’. Both mean water!

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