Learn about this ancient and ubiquitous fresh cheese of South Asia.
From the more than 1,800 cheeses that exist in the world, the oldest and most versatile is arguably the fresh cheese, paneer, that is ubiquitous in Indian cooking. Supposedly mentioned in the Vedas, the ancient Sanskrit scriptures that go back 4,000 years, fresh paneer is surprisingly easy to make at home and amazingly adaptable to different cooking methods.
Regardless of its possible Vedic origins, some argue that the Portuguese introduced paneer in Bengal in the 17th century and others claim that Mughals brought it to India in the 1500s. Regardless of when and how paneer was introduced to Indian cuisine, South Asian chefs over the years have created many delicacies using paneer as a base, and it has become an essential component of appetizers, entrées and desserts, all of which are enhanced by the sensory delight of chewing slowly on the texture of fresh paneer.
A Speculative History
Since Vedic times, cows have been regarded as sacred in India, in part because milk has an important role in the nutrition of people residing in the sub-continent. A famous mythological story is of Lord Krishna as a child stealing freshly-churned butter from neighbors’ kitchens and then pleading innocence. This story is sung in popular bhajans (hymns), and milk products are typical offerings during ritual worship. Just as Lord Krishna’s fondness for milk made him an invincible deity able to overpower demons, Indian vegetarian parents encourage their children to consume dairy products as a source of protein to gain strength.
Fresh paneer is extremely simple and quick to make because all it requires is the curdling and straining of freshly-boiled milk. Unlike many hard cheeses that require precise cultures, aging and certification, each family’s paneer is a little different, but it is almost always delicious. If one is cooking several dishes simultaneously, and milk is boiling, and a few drops of an acidic agent splatter in the milk, it could curdle and result in something very much paneer. Thus, it is very likely that the basic paneer recipe emerged through happenstance or lucky kitchen accidents in different parts of the world where boiling milk was part of the diet. The “accident” subsequently evolved into a wide range of delicious paneer dishes.
In the Middle East and Central Asia ‘paneer’ is the Persian word for cheese, and some of Iran’s neighbors, such as Turkey and Armenia, continue to use the term ‘peynir,’ or ‘panir.’
Compared to Turkish peynir, which retained its spartan nomadic origins, Indian paneer embraced the colorful, flavorful spices of its adopted homeland. Instead of being confined simply to a spread for an appetizer, it was integrated into all aspects of Indian cooking because paneer readily absorbs the different flavors added to it. Paneer also has several health benefits as a source of protein and essential minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and sodium.
Paneer is now the focus of many academic research articles. An article in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, “Paneer Production: A Review,” co-authored by Professors Umer Khan and Ashraf Pal of the Faculty of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry in India’s Jammu & Kashmir State, discusses how commercial scale paneer manufacturing processes have evolved over the years to increase yield and quality. In scientific terms, paneer is a “non-fermentative, non-renneted, non-melting and unripened type of cheese.” Paneer’s ability to be deep-fried has made it a favorite for making snacks, e.g., pakoras or “fritters.” In addition to being easily digestible, it is a low cost source of animal protein for vegetarians.
As paneer’s popularity has spread worldwide, standardized techniques have been introduced to take its manufacturing beyond relatively unorganized, small scale manufacturing and introduce different varieties of paneer. The authors, Khan and Pal, list, among others, “fiber-enriched low-fat paneer, protein-enriched filled paneer, ultra-filtered paneer and vegetable impregnated paneer.” Paneer’s growing sophistication is reflected in articles with titles like, “Effect of processing parameters and vegetables on the quality characteristics of vegetable fortified paneer,” also published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology. Let us hope that we never lose the essential simplicity of fresh, home-made paneer.
Making Fresh Paneer at Home: Much Easier than Pie
Many families make paneer the old-fashioned way because it is quick, efficient and delicious. Though paneer researchers recommend buffalo milk as ideal for paneer because of its high fat content, casein and minerals, cow milk is commonly used, especially in the U.S. The fat content and the type of acid ingredient used to curdle and coagulate the milk affects the texture of the finished paneer. Since the process of making paneer is so simple, it is best to try different types of milk and curdling agents and see if you prefer one over the other. First, pour six cups of milk into a heavy bottom pot and bring it to a gentle boil on a medium flame. Once the milk comes to a boil, turn off the stove and add 2 tablespoons of an acid ingredient, e.g., yogurt, lemon juice or vinegar, and stir for a minute. Many home cooks prefer vinegar, as it curdles the milk faster than yogurt and lemon juice while some champion yogurt or lemon juice because they prefer the resulting texture or flavor.
As the milk curdles, the solids separate from the whey. If the paneer has been properly cooked, the whey will be clear, rather than milky. If it is milky, you either did not boil the milk sufficiently or you did not add enough of the acid ingredient; too little and the milk will not curdle fully, too much and the paneer will have a sour taste.
Now it is time for draining. Put a colander over a bowl to collect the strained whey, layer the colander with a clean cheese cloth and pour in the curdled milk. After pouring in the milk, put in cold water to wash out any smell of the acidic ingredient. After rinsing, squeeze off any excess water, make a knot with the cloth and hang for 30 minutes to drain any excess whey. Wring the cloth and place the bundle of paneer on a flat surface, such as a plate. Place a heavy object on it and let it sit for an hour or so to set the paneer. This is fresh paneer, and it is ready to eat, season with spices or add to a recipe of your choice. It is, literally, easier than pie.
Using Appetizers and Snacks
Paneer’s ability to be deep-fried has made it a favorite for making snacks. Many of these are enjoyed as appetizers in restaurants and sold in street stalls throughout India. Samosas, pakoras (critters) and parathas (flatbread) are three of the most well-known deep fried snacks that can contain paneer. The concept in each is similar; take either cubed or crumbled paneer, enclose it in batter or dough, and cook it by grilling or frying.
Samosas are one of the most famous street snacks in India. They are deep fried pastries with various stuffings, including paneer, potatoes, chicken and spinach. Originating as “samsa” in the Middle East and Central Asia, they were introduced to India in the 13th and 14th centuries. Today, variations of samosas are enjoyed beyond South Asia, as sambusa baraka in Tajikistan, and Sambusas in Myanmar. You can make a yummy samosa by taking half a wheat tortilla, stuff it with a paneer filling spiced to your taste, fold it into a turnover and deep fry it.
Almost all Indians and Westerners savor the delicious naan bread. Initially a breakfast dish for royal families during the Mughal Era, naan is now an integral part of Indian cuisine and flavored with garlic, nuts, keema (ground meat) and paneer. Unlike traditional naan, which is baked in a clay tandoor oven, paneer naan is baked in a frying pan, which in turn gives it a different appearance and texture.
Paneer’s ability to absorb different spices makes it suitable for several Indian main entrées. Among the most popular are saag paneer (spinach and cheese), matar paneer (peas and paneer curry), shahi paneer (creamy gravy with paneer) and paneer tikka masala (tomato curry and paneer).
With several variations throughout northern and eastern India, saag is a leafy vegetable dish, which can be made from mustard greens, collard greens and spinach. In Punjab, it is popular to add other delicacies to the greens to increase its nutritious value. This includes meat, aloo (potatoes) and, most famously, paneer.
Shahi paneer is a creamy gravy dish savored for its rich taste. ‘Shahi,’ which means ‘royal,’ in Urdu derives from the title, ‘Shahenshah,’ meaning ruler. The dish’s exotic name traces its origins to the Mughal court in Northern India. The popular “Guide Book to Life,” recites the story of a chef who was making malai kofta and simultaneously cutting paneer for a separate dish. By mistake, two-thirds of the paneer fell into the gravy of malai kofta. The chef later tasted his ‘mistake,’ which was so delicious that it could be served to royalty.
Using Paneer in Desserts
Paneer also finds its way into some of the subcontinent’s most popular desserts, many of which trace their origins to the eastern state of Bengal. Chhena, a variant of paneer used in sweets, is native to West Bengal, Bangladesh and Odisha. Chhena is not pressed for as long as paneer. As a result, it retains more moisture and has a soft, crumbly texture that makes it ideal for sweets.
Ras Malai, originally from Eastern India, is a favorite paneer delicacy throughout India. ‘Ras’ meaning juice, and malai ‘cream,’ consists of flattened balls of chhena soaked in malai, containing stuffings of saffron, pista and kheer (rice pudding). Rasgulla is a syrupy dessert made from ball-shaped chhena dumplings and semolina dough cooked in sugar syrup. It is basically Ras malai without the added cream. According to Shah Alum Nur’s article, “War on Rasgullah,” both Bangladesh and India claim the origins of the dish. In case you thought this is not a serious matter, you should know that the Indian claim has heightened the controversy between West Bengal and Odisha who have taken the matter to court. It is obvious that South Asians take their paneer very seriously. And, increasingly, this versatile fresh cheese is gaining popularity throughout the globe. Healthy as well as delicious, it absorbs the spices and flavors of whatever it is immersed in, whether it be a sweet dessert or spicy curry, without sacrificing its separateness and texture. It thus adds a new dimension and enriches the dish of which it is a part. Maybe the ageless Paneer is a metaphor for success in daily life.