I once tried vegetarianism and I’m not proud of it. Having been a staunch non-vegetarian all my life, I lasted all of seven days. As Dickens said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Only, in my case, it really was just a collection of the worst times. If you’ve ever tried to swallow your greens while your friend feasts on chicken tandoori legs, you’ll feel my agony. The only beacon of ambient light during that week was paneer. Paneer is the closest you can get to meat for a vegetarian (or someone pretending to be one). I thought my heartfelt gratitude would be directed to some Punjabi aunty who made paneer to match her palak leaves ages ago. However, the truth is that my saviour was actually invented by pure accident.
Legend has it…
…that the Mongols were travelling on horseback across a desert once. They carried milk in rawhide bags called mushkis—as a one-size-fits-all solution for both hunger and thirst. However, the heat of the region and the leather’s rennet combined to turn the milk into paneer. When the Mongols tasted it, they were pleased with the taste and incorporated it into their regular diet. Paneer was eventually brought into the Indian subcontinent by the Mughals and soon became a much-loved part of Indian cuisine, prepared in various forms with different spices. The word ‘paneer’ has its origins in Persia, but there are other references too. In Vedic literature (the Rigveda), there is mention of a cheese-like substance, which some contemporary Indian chefs have interpreted as paneer. In some parts of India, paneer goes by the name of ‘chenna.’
Making paneer like the Mongols
The succulent, milky taste combined with the aroma of mixed spices are sufficient to make paneer dishes some of the most loved food items in India, but there are other factors that contribute to its popularity. Given the substantial number of vegetarians in the country, protein is required from food sources other than meat or eggs, and paneer serves as a delicious, rich source of the nutrient. Unlike most other cheeses, creating paneer is a process completely free of any animal products because none are required for coagulation. Making paneer at home is extremely simple. Take a leaf from the Mongolian recipe books and add a souring agent like lemon juice, citric acid, vinegar, or even yogurt to some hot milk. This separates the whey from the curd, post which you can strain the liquid by wrapping the curd in a cheesecloth or muslin. The drained fluid can even be used to make dough for chapatis. Once the excess water is drained, the paneer can either be dipped in chilled water for a few hours or placed under a heavy weight to be cut up into pieces and cooked in curries, etc.
Such popularity, much wow
This easy-to-make process makes paneer affordable for all, and is also an excellent way of reusing milk that is about to go bad, thereby saving food from being wasted. Paneer is quite versatile too. Not only is it used in Punjabi palak paneer and tikkas, it has also become a part of Indian interpretations of international dishes like Italian pizzas and Chinese chilly. Even if you are a carnivore, you can’t go wrong with some yummy paneer. After you’ve had your fill of chicken tandoori, of course!