If you remember Tom and Jerry, the cartoon, then you might recall how, in one episode, Jerry the mouse goes to the moon and finds that it is made of his favourite Swiss cheese. As a seven year old, who loved watching the show, I craved this yellow cheese with its famous holes just as much as Jerry did. I could never find it at home, so I decided to go to the ball of cheese in the sky, or what is more commonly known as the moon.
The only problem was that I wasn’t sure if the milky white moon that I saw from my terrace would have the cheese I craved, because it wasn’t like the yellow one I saw on television. My eight-year-old cousin, who was visiting me during her summer holidays, convinced me to abort my mission to the moon. According to her, going to the white moon on my terrace was futile because it was made of paneer, the white Indian cottage cheese, instead of the yellow Swiss cheese. Big disappointment.
Spoiling it some more
Looking back, I could see why I was disappointed. Some cheeses are unique because their ingredients cannot be found anywhere else or the process of making or ageing the cheese is special. With paneer, one has no choice, but to find joy in the plainness of fresh milk and the ordinary process of making paneer, by simply curdling some of this abundant milk.
Still, paneer is an everyday household item in most South Asian homes and some believe the credit goes to Iranian travellers, who brought it with them when they visited India. It is said that the name itself is from an old Iranian word Panir, which means cheese.
“The origin of paneer can be traced back to the 16th century by which time the Mughal Empire had spread to most parts of the subcontinent. Under their rule, there were many Iranian and Afghan people who frequented the subcontinent. Paneer may have been introduced by these travellers. In that era, they made paneer using goat or sheep’s milk,” says Chef Sneha Singhi Upadhaya, a food and beverage consultant based in Kolkata, India.
Most of the paneer we find today is made with fresh cow milk that is heated and curdled with an acidic agent, like lemon juice or vinegar, a rather straightforward process. “Some people like to add spices and herbs to the milk, while making paneer at home because this gives it a different flavour and makes it tastier,” says Upadhaya.
How to make paneer at home?
There’s more than enough cheese in Canada to keep all its residents satisfied, however Poornima Padmanabhan, an Indian food enthusiast and engineer, who lives in Calgary, Alberta is still fond of paneer and uses it in most of her dishes.
She shares a simple recipe to make paneer at home.
Start by boiling at least two litres of milk in a heavy bottomed saucepan.
When it starts to boil, add two tablespoons of fresh lime juice or vinegar and then reduce the flame.
Stirring the lime juice into the pan starts the curdling process. You’ll start to notice the whey separate from the solids.
Switch off the stove, drain and filter the milk solids through a clean dry cheese cloth.
Gather all the solids in the cheese cloth and rinse the paneer in cold water to get rid of any whey or residual lime juice.
Bundle up the paneer in the cloth and wring it to get rid of excess water and place it in a bowl with a heavy weight on top, such as an iron wok, a stone or heavy-bottomed pan, and leave it on the counter for a minimum of two hours. Paneer is now ready.
You can crumble it up or shape it to make a block, which can be cut into cubes.
Uncooked paneer is just as delicious and nutritious as any cheese that is eaten raw.
Suman Sehgal, a resident of Faridabad in New Delhi, India, says that uncooked paneer is just as delicious and nutritious as any cheese.
She shares a slightly different way to make it at home.
Boil a litre of milk.
Add 250 grams of fresh curd to the boiled milk.
When the milk begins to form solids, turn off the heat. Let it cool and strain the milk solids through a muslin cloth.
Pour cold water over the residue in the cloth and store the milk solids in a container where it can form a shape.
A high or low temperature will affect the texture and flavour of the paneer. Don't boil the milk, rather it should just start to bubble. I like to dilute the acid, like lemon juice or vinegar, with a few tablespoons of water and then add it to the milk. This lessens the sudden shock to the milk.
It doesn’t matter whether one uses curd or acids to curdle milk, however paying attention to the cooking temperature can make your paneer tastier.
“A high or low temperature will affect the texture and flavour of the paneer. Do not boil the milk, rather it should just start to get bubbles. Personally, I like to dilute the acid, like lemon juice or vinegar, with a few tablespoons of water and then add it to the milk. This lessens the sudden shock to the milk,” Upadhaya explains.
Challenges with paneer
Like most cheeses, paneer is soft to touch and when it’s done right, it almost melts in your mouth. Such a delicate texture can make it a little difficult to cook it, unless you’re making Paneer Bhurji, where the texture should be crumbly to mix well with a spicy tomato sauce.
When it comes to other dishes, like Shahi Paneer, the paneer must be in intact. Padmanabhan ensures this by gently frying small cubes of paneer until it turns golden in colour.
I try not to pair paneer, fried or not, with potatoes, in the same gravy as I find the textures competing with each other. I avoid cooking paneer for too long on high heat so I add it towards the end of the dish.
“Fried paneer helps me make use of it even in Pulao, Jalfrezi, Koftas and Tari Wali Sabzis. But I try not to pair paneer, fried or not, with potatoes, in the same gravy as I find the textures competing with each other. I avoid cooking paneer for too long on high heat so I add it towards the end of the dish. Using highly acidic ingredients can also impact its flavour to an extent,” she explains.
How versatile is paneer?
As a child, I remember dipping large chunks of homemade paneer in sugar before eating it raw. Now that I’ve grown used to a softer, cooked version, I find that paneer tastes better when paired with velvety rich and tangy gravies.
According to the blogger Padmanabhan, combining paneer with sautéed onions, tomatoes, aromatic spices and cashews enhances the flavour of this homemade cheese. Or, you can shallow fry masala-laden marinated strips of paneer. She further tells us how to make paneer in different ways:
“As a vegetarian, I think paneer can be a good source of protein and that’s why I try to incorporate it in simple everyday meals. I add it to gravies, grill or deep fry it and it tastes just as wonderful. Paneer itself requires little to no time to cook and works well with any flavour profile. Although I consciously avoid pairing paneer with greens as it is said to inhibit the absorption of nutrients, I could never say no to a vibrant Saag Paneer.
“I also make paneer masala dosa, which was popular in my college canteen, where crumbled paneer is sautéed with curry leaves, tomatoes, onions and ginger, garlic and fennel seeds. This goes into a rice crepe as a filling. Lal Paneer Pulao, Rahra Paneer and Kadhai Paneer are some of my other favourite dishes to make at home.
“I pack paneer parathas for lunch boxes or a weekend brunch. These recipes are toddler friendly and so easy to make. Paneer Paratha can be a bit challenging for beginners and I remember when I first attempted it. I took several long minutes to carefully fold the spiced crumbly paneer filling into the paratha dough and sealing the edges to make sure that the filling stayed in,” Padmanabhan explains.
“When it comes to desserts, paneer is one of the most popular ingredients used to make desserts, especially Indian desserts like rasgulla, sandesh, kalakand and gulab jamun,” says Upadhaya.
Lesser known versions
With so many ways of making paneer, the Indian cottage cheese happens to eclipse other varieties that are slightly similar to paneer, to say the least. In fact, Prabin Thapa, a 25-year-old Nepali expat based in Dubai, who has never tasted paneer, was surprised when I told him how it was made.
Paneer isn’t very popular in Nepal. But the way you make it is similar to how we prepare Churu and Churpi, a kind of cheese made with Yak milk.
“Paneer isn’t very popular in Nepal. But the way you make it is similar to how we prepare Churu and Churpi, a kind of cheese made with Yak milk. It is originally from Tibet, but it is now common in Nepal. Like paneer, we boil fresh yak milk and all the fat collects at the top, which is separated from the remaining milk. We wrap the milk solids in a thin cloth and squeeze the excess liquid from it. If eaten right away it is soft and tastes milky. The soft one is called Churu.
“Some leave the milk solids in the cloth to dry until it becomes very hard. We dry it over a fire to give it a smoky flavour and harden it even more. This is Churpi. We can store this for longer. After it is dry we cut it into small cubes and keep it in our mouth, chewing it slowly. It’s like how people eat supari or betel nut,” Thapa explains.
The rise of frozen paneer
Padmanabhan, who also works for a leading dairy products manufacturer, has come to appreciate the meticulous multi-stage process of manufacturing frozen paneer and how it has helped her busy routine.
When cooking frozen paneer, you can make it softer by submerging it in hot water for two minutes before adding it to gravies.
“Making paneer at home is a luxury few can afford, especially working mums like me. I find store bought paneer extremely useful for busy weeknight meals. Most dairy manufacturers will ensure the highest hygiene standards because they are dealing with fresh milk. Nutrition is preserved while freezing the paneer and the taste is just as good. However, when cooking frozen paneer, you can make it softer by submerging it in hot water for two minutes before adding it to gravies,” she explains.
However, the popularity of frozen paneer hasn’t taken over homemade versions. Especially in communities that can number among its resources a steady supply of paneer through the abundance of cattle or community kitchen that prepare it for occasions.
From Punjab to Punjab
A surplus of milk speaks well for Imran Muhammad’s village in Punjab, Pakistan. The Pakistani food enthusiast, who is based in Ajman, says that paneer is an important ingredient in Pakistani-Punjabi cuisine.
“Paneer is very special to us and it is made at home on a daily basis in all the houses in the villages of Dera Ghazi Khan in Punjab. We don’t need to buy paneer. We have a lot of cattle in our village and that’s why it is easy to make paneer at home because there’s a surplus of milk. Homemade paneer is the healthiest form of paneer.
We don’t need to buy paneer. We have a lot of cattle in our village and that’s why it is easy to make paneer at home because there’s a surplus of milk. Homemade paneer is the healthiest form of paneer.
“Everyone in my family participates in the process of making paneer at home, right from milking the cows, every morning. There’s a saying in my village that Punjab has many strong men, who take part in kushti or wrestling, because their diet mainly consists of fresh homemade paneer,” Muhammed explains.
Ravinder Kaur Gill from Chandigarh, Punjab, in India says paneer is quite popular in Indian Punjabi cuisine, especially among vegetarians in the region.
Gill explains that Punjabi paneer is made by curdling boiled milk with lime juice and traditionally buffalo milk is preferred as it is higher in fat. While paneer can be used in a variety of dishes, traditionally and most commonly in a Punjabi household, it is used to make Mattar Paneer, a curry made by cooking paneer and peas in a tomato-based curry.
In Punjab, paneer making is usually not a community activity except when there are festivals and weddings. On such occasions, people in the villages and towns donate milk to the Langar, where large quantities of paneer are then made to feed the congregation.
“In Punjab, paneer making is usually not a community activity except when there are festivals and weddings. On such occasions, people in the villages and towns donate milk to the Langar, where large quantities of paneer are then made to feed the congregation,” Gill adds.
When it comes to making dishes with paneer, every region has its unique take on its recipes. Like Methi Chaman, a simple paneer dish that originates from Kashmir.
Share your favourite paneer recipes with us at email@example.com