The smoky secret to this Shahi Paneer recipe

The smoky secret to this Shahi Paneer recipe

Cottage cheese or paneer cooked in a rich onion and tomato gravy

Shahi Paneer
Shahi Paneer, a famous recipe made of onions, tomatoes, and cashews from the Indian state of Punjab. Image used for illustrative purpose only. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: What do you do when you are single handedly cooking up a feast for a get-together? Be smart. That’s right. That said, especially when your guests have dietary preferences – vegetarian and non-vegetarian. I learnt it the hard way when I decided to take up the task and had to host two families.

I turned to my mother-in-law for expertise. She is an expert at hosting and cooking up a get-together feast. Her recipes are popular with friends and family, and over the years, she has skillfully added her personal cooking notes. This time, she happily came to my rescue. She suggested making a gravy dish that would appeal to both vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. That would be a Shahi or royal recipe, with a unique cooking technique – using the dhungar method (a South Asian way of introducing a buttery, smoky flavor as a finishing touch to food) to give it a restaurant-like taste. I made a smoky flavoured Shahi Paneer for the first time, and it was a hit.

This is a famous recipe made of onions, tomatoes, and cashews from the Indian state of Punjab and pairs well with parathas or shallow fried bread. Indian food historians believe this dish originated in the Mughal royal kitchens; a dynasty that ruled India between 1526–1761.

Here is a recipe with tips to try this royal dish at home.

Shahi Paneer
Shahi Paneer Image Credit: Sonal Tiwari/Gulf News

Preparation Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Serves: 5 to 6


4 onions, sliced

A handful of cashew nuts, about 15 to 18 pieces

4 cloves

4 green cardamoms

1 stick cinnamon

A small portion of nutmeg

1 black cardamom

3 dried red chillies

6 black peppercorns

4 tomatoes, boiled

4 tbsp vegetables oil or any neutral oil

4 tbsp butter

1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste (equal portions)

2 tsp coriander powder

½ tsp Kashmiri red chilli powder

½ tsp turmeric powder

Salt to taste

½ tsp Kasuri methi or dried fenugreek leaves

½ tsp roasted cumin powder

½ tsp garam masala powder 

5 cups of whole cream milk

500 gms of fresh cottage cheese or paneer

For the dhungar method:

1 charcoal cube

2 tbsp ghee or clarified butter


1. Shahi paneer is cooked in milk. You can also replace it with fresh cream if using water for cooking.

2. There are two main steps required to make the base. First, slice the onions and add them to a pan along with the following spices: cardamoms, green and black, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, cashews, red chilli powder, black peppercorns and half a cup of water. Boil this mix with half a cup of water for about 15 minutes on medium heat.

3. Simultaneously, boil the tomatoes in another pan by adding 3/4th cup of water.

4. Once the onion mix is done, turn off the flame and cool the mixture before adding it to a blender. Then, purée it. Note: If the purée turns out too thick, add a little water – 2 to 3 tablespoons should be good to make it smooth. Once done, transfer it to a bowl and keep it aside. One part of the base gravy is ready.

5. Now it’s time to blitz the tomatoes to a purée. After the tomatoes are cooked, allow them to cool down and add the whole cooked tomatoes to a blender to make a purée. You do not have to add water here because the tomatoes would release water. Keep this purée aside.

6. Then, take a wok or kadhai, add oil, butter to it, and turn on the flame to medium heat. Do not heat the butter much. Once the wok is hot enough, the butter will melt quickly. As the butter begins to melt, add the ginger-garlic paste and sauté. When it starts turning slightly golden, add the following spices – coriander powder, Kashmiri red chilli powder, turmeric powder, roasted cumin powder, and garam masala.

1. Cook the spices for about 1 to 2 minutes on medium heat, and then add the onion purée you had kept aside. Mix them well and cook for about 2 minutes. Add salt to taste. I added 1 tsp of salt to this recipe.

Tip: Add a pinch of salt to both the purées.

1. After that, add the tomato purée to the mix and give it a good stir.

2. Now, pour the milk gently into the mix and continue stirring slowly. Cook the gravy for about 8 to 10 minutes before adding the paneer slices.

In a shahi paneer recipe, the paneer slices are cut in a triangular shape, unlike cubes. First, cut the paneer into cubes and then cut each cube diagonally into a triangle shape.

You can shallow fry the paneer on a griddle or add fresh paneer into the gravy.

If you use frozen paneer, which isn’t fresh, then soak the block in hot water for 15 to 20 minutes.

1. Once done, slowly add the paneer slices to the gravy and allow it to cook for a further 10 minutes on medium heat. If required, pour more milk as the gravy cooks, depending on how thin or thick you want the consistency.

2. Before turning off the flame, add in roasted dried fenugreek leaves, and cover the shahi paneer with a lid.

3. It’s time for the finishing touch – to give shahi paneer a smoky flavour using the dhungar method. You will need a small cube of charcoal, and since I am using only a tiny piece, it is safe to burn it indoors, provided you have a hood fan over the stove. Hold the coal with a pair of tongs and place it over the flame of your gas. Keep turning it in all directions to ensure all sides are lit. This should roughly take around 4 to 5 minutes. Working quickly, place the cube in a steel bowl and plop a few tablespoons of ghee or clarified butter right on top. This will instantly release smoke. Place it in the centre of the paneer dish. Then quickly close the lid of the cooking pot and leave it be for a further 15 minutes. Note: Even if you plan to serve this dish way later, do this right after the paneer is cooked. You will still get the smoky flavour no matter when you warm it up.

This is a great way to reuse leftovers, especially dishes with a strong flavour or something that has cheese.

Recipe courtesy: RajLakshmi Singh, homemaker and cook

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