If I say, “curry” what comes to mind first? Chicken. Maybe lamb or a spicy fish dish. But how about cheese? Huh? Vegetarians and carnivores take note; Indian paneer—a homemade farmer’s cheese, is the key ingredient in a variety of beautifully spiced curry dishes that are once exotic, nutritious and inexpensive to make at home.
I recently took up temporary residence at Leela Manilal’s home in New Delhi, India, eager to cook, learn, eat and write all I could about Indian cuisine. Almost as soon as I arrived, we sat down in her large drawing room with tall cool glasses of nimbu pani (sweet lime water with black salt) and went over a list of dishes to be added to her International Home Chef, India section on Beyond Wonderful. As we talked, I confessed the need to master the simple art of making paneer. While many had told me how easy it is, I’d never gotten consistent results. Sometimes my cheese was firm and perfect; other times it was tasty, but crumbly like cottage cheese. Not pretty. It made my favorite matter paneer (a fragrant spice-infused tomato-based gravy with green peas) look messy and unappealing. I yearned to produce reliably firm, perfect paneer every time.
Leela laughed and said, “Barbara, it really is easy; we’ll go through each step and as a reward I’ll teach you how to make my palak (spinach) paneer, too.” I was thrilled because Leela makes the best version of this dish that I’ve tasted. Her creamy, lightly spiced spinach it the perfect compliment to the paneer. And after all our hard work in the kitchen, we’d get to eat it for lunch.
At 85, Leela depends on Niranjan, the family cook, to help her prep ingredients when cooking, and to prepare the daily family meals. She asked him to make a fresh batch of this un-aged, unsalted cheese and let him know that we would both be in the kitchen to observe his process.
Everything was ready when we arrived and Niranjan got to work. Now, you must realize that he speaks Hindi with a few words of English and my Hindi is limited, so Leela became the translator. In between there was lots of gesturing.
Niranjan poured about eight cups of very creamy milk (no skim or low-fat allowed—the creamier the better) into a heavy-bottomed pan and brought it to a rolling boil. He curdled the milk with acid (in this instance a tablespoon of vinegar), lowered the heat so that it wouldn’t boil over and stirred as the curds separated from the pale greenish whey (liquid).
Leela watched and said, “I prefer to use dahi (Hindi for yogurt) for the acid, but you can also use lemon or lime juice to curdle the milk.” I told her I often used lime juice, and vinegar on occasion. “Well, there is your problem, Barbara. Lime juice produces a crumbly consistency that we use is a specific paneer dish. Vinegar makes it firmer.” Voila, the mystery of the firm cheese was solved with vinegar. Who knew? It was a delicious end to years of frustration.
As we chatted, Niranjan poured the curds into a waiting mesh strainer set over a heat-resistant bowl to let the excess moisture drain away. About 30 minutes later he laid the paneer on a large piece of thin cloth (cheesecloth works well), formed and wrapped it before placing it in the refrigerator with a heavy weight on top. Niranjan chose a bowl of whey, but you could use a heavy pot. Leela watched him work and stressed the importance of the weight, and patience, as this step presses out any remaining excess moisture to produce a firmer cheese. “Let it sit overnight before cutting it into cubes and lightly frying them for your recipe,” she advised.
Betty Manilal, Leela’s daughter-in-law, came into the kitchen and suggested that we go to the local open-air produce market for the spinach in the early evening when it’s cooler outside. Indian markets are always an adventure, especially for Westerners. Filled with scores of individual vendors all hawking their just-harvested seasonal fruits and vegetables—some familiar, some not—this is not your familiar US farmer’s market. One thing you can depend on is that vendors triple their prices when they see a Westerner, especially an American. Betty is a tough bargainer and takes none of their shenanigans, often walking off and not coming back until she gets a fair local price.
As we moved through the crowds, I realized that I’d already become accustomed to maneuvering around the large lumbering cows and buffalos and the constantly honking cars. Bicycles are an entirely different matter, as they whip by ringing their jingly bells a hair’s breadth before impact. I’ve learned to jump back quickly and control my mouth. Even though they don’t speak English, the bicyclists know when someone is abusing them verbally, and then we have completely different cultural problems. I was relieved when an old woman agreed to sell us two kilos of spinach at a good price.
Close to lunch time the next day, Leela and I were back in the very hot, busy kitchen. Her legs were bothering her so Niranjan helped by lightly frying the paneer and prepping the spinach and other vegetables. Leela checked his beautifully minced onions, crushed garlic, tomato puree and spices and got ready to begin.
Leela approaches the stove like a maestro stepping up to the podium. She poured and heated some vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and threw in some cumin seeds, infusing the oil with their earthy scent and taste. Soon the onions and garlic were sizzling and perfuming the air. She sprinkled the coriander, chile and turmeric over the mixture then gave it a good stir before adding the tomato puree. As the acolyte, I was taking notes on my well-used yellow tablet and hoping that no one would hear my growling stomach. As Leela completed the dish with pureed spinach and the lightly fried paneer, we each reached eagerly for a spoon. Hmmmm, just a little salt and it’s perfect.
Heading to lunch with the family, I felt good knowing that I could now make paneer in my sleep and had even cracked the code of Leela’s heavenly spinach dish. Sure proof that no matter how well or how long you’ve cooked, there’s something new and delicious to learn—and to share with others.