From being referred to as a lowly food to being one of the finest (vegetarian) presenters of Indian flavours on the world table to becoming an obsession in US, here’s what transformed the fortunes of paneer, a fine pastoral innovation.
When it comes to representing Indian vegetarian food to the world, few can deny the role of paneer — the iconic fresh cheese of India. For a generous slice of modern history, paneer has not only been the most common presence in the vegetarian section of a restaurant menu, but a celebrated one as well. Just think about how many dishes paneer has popularised or even elevated to gourmet status starting with the famous paneer tikka, paneer pasanda that has a legacy of impressing the Nawabs and their courtiers alike, paneer qorma, paneer makhana and the winter must-have, paneer palak.
According to Srijith Gopinathan, Executive Chef, Taj Campton Place, San Francisco, who has seen the traditional Indian cheese —once ridiculed by the Shah of Persia for being inconsequential — take centerstage in the West, paneer today is a non-negotiable option for every Indian chef who sets up shop abroad. One reason for this, says Chef Sharad Dewan, “is paneer’s inherent quality. A rich source of fat with subtle flavours — almost described as bland at times — this varietal of fresh cheese is an excellent ingredient to showcase the different nuances of Indian masalas, even the most subtle like posto. It is this quality that makes it an ideal candidate for all forms of culinary theatrics, including fusion. An excellent example of this is the famous Apollo Fish that has paneer marinated, crumbed, and fried, and the all-favourite Chilly Paneer, an ode to both Indian Chinese and chillies.”
While those qualities may have given paneer its irreplaceable seat in most Indian menus, it has also made it an ideal base for experiments. Rooh San Francisco’s Paneer Pinwheel, chefpreneur Sujan Sarkar’s brilliant take on the iconic dish, and Paneer Kofta, Apricot Chili Jam, Red Pepper Gravy, again a fascinating representation of a traditional dish, are two fine instances of the rise of paneer in the US, where it once played second lead to the meat offering.
The endearing taste and ability to pair are only half of what lends paneer this amazing creative license. There’s also its high melting point, says Chef Gopinath, who like Chef Hari Nayak, Culinary Director of Sona, has worked with this easily in-house produced cheese to introduce unfamiliar Indian flavours like Chettinad and Udupi. “If tomorrow I want to introduce ghee roast in a grill format, I would work with paneer for the simple reason that it can withstand not just the heat but also incorporate the flavours exceptionally well and aid in tweaking it to the palate profile,” says the Michelin star-awarded chef about the fresh cheese varietal that has recently taken the US market by storm.
Concurs Chef Nayak who believes that the renewed interest in vegetarian cuisine has played a significant role in the change of paneer’s fortunes from an option to the main act. “The vegetarian trend and the overall mainstream acceptance of Indian cuisine is the reason why paneer has gained popularity in the West. Of course, the fact that paneer makes for a delicious and ‘clean source’ of protein as well as fat has played a crucial role in shifting the limelight to the cheese,” he says. Proving the celebrated chefs’ point are his two creations Swiss Chard Saag Paneer and Paneer & Ricotta Kofta Korma, where he cleverly combines two different formats of cheese to create a dish that is delicious and satiating.
Chef Dewan, who has worked with paneer as well as its softer feta-style cousin chenna, finds the appeal of the former invincible. “There is something fascinating about paneer and the innovation that has happened around it in the past few years that has elevated the once pastoral community staple to almost a level of superfood. It is not only a clean source of goodness but also an ingredient that can be further treated to suit a certain diner’s food preferences,” says Chef Dewan who often uses a drier version of paneer to give classic dishes the keto twist.
In fact, removing all the whey from paneer, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “is a good way to tweak paneer to become an occasional substitute to tofu, which is often preferred for its high-quality protein.”
What gives paneer the upper hand, she continues, “is not just the good fat, but also the low GI index, which also justifies why only a small portion of this fresh cheese (226 gm) not only fulfils 56 percent of our daily protein and calcium requirement but also digests rather slowly keeping us relatively full and energised. This is the reason there is no insulin spike and what makes paneer such a good bet not only for people across age groups, but also those with medical conditions. In addition, it is also the best raw food to have for getting one’s daily quota of calcium and phosphorus, and the necessary Vitamin D.”
In fact, thanks to its high melting point among all fresh cheeses — including some dried ones — paneer manages to retain its nutritive goodness even when it is part of dishes that need prolonged cooking or high heat like tikkas and kebabs. Paneer may be trending in the US right now but, long ago, it had made it to Emperor Shah Jahan’s dastarkhwan. According to Nuskha-e-Shahjahani (‘Shah Jahan’s Recipes’), a manuscript of recipes written during the time of the great Mughal, there is a mention of a paneer biranj that was designed by the rakhabdars for a special table that the king shared with his courtiers, mostly Kashmiri pandits who brought their version of the paneer, called chaman, to the Mughal kitchen.
In fact, many believe it was these dried cheeses along with the Pashtun’s yoghurt-based kadchgalli and the Polish Toru that became the inspiration behind the creation of paneer. In any case, as per Executive Chef Neeraj Rawoot of Sofitel BKC, paneer seems to have existed “in some form in India thanks to our ancient pastoral tradition before we turned into an agrarian community. In fact, our use of fresh cheese dates to the Harappan civilisation where milk was usually meant for children and the elderly while those in between preferred curd and paneer which had a better shelf life which could be extended even further by drying the cheese.”
Culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, the only chef to have recreated a table based on the Indus Valley civilisation’s food habits, agrees. “While we credit the Portuguese and the Parsis for creating and popularising paneer, their contribution has been in terms of technique (read: rennet) that could improve the quality and taste of the cheese. The cheese itself — in this case, paneer — has been a 4,500-year-old evolution with influences from the Mongolian Kashk and the Kudan, a ricotta-style cheese traditionally made by the Himalayan Gujjars,” he says.
The fact that chennapodo — India’s cheesecake — was created by the 12th century in Dasapalla town of ancient Odisha stands testimony to how advanced we as a nation were when it came to making fresh cheese. Fascinatingly, it wasn’t just the technique that we had mastered, says Chef Ravi Tokas of Parat, but also the understanding of the raw material that helped us get better results. “Unlike the other ancient pastoral communities, indigenous tribes like the Maldhari in Kutch not only honed the understanding of breeding the right cattle for it, but were the first to work with the climate-resilient Banni buffalo who produced milk that was apt for creating a tasty and nutritious fresh cheese,” he says.
Chef Tokas’ Paneer Laung Lata is, in fact, an ode to one of the ways that this cattle-breeding community used their cheese as a sustainable food. The dish, explains the chef, “is three layers of cheese with khoya and nuts served on a bed of tomato gravy. A blend of sweet and sublime taste, it has the added bonus of being keto friendly.”
It was this ancient knowledge that Bipen Sharma of Sharma’s Kitchen, the pioneer of Indian dairy products in Australia, brought to use while designing their first set of paneer back in the 1990s.
The story goes that the migrant chefpreneur was taken aback when Bathers’ Pavilion Chef Serge Dansereau, a famous name then, called paneer bland. In order to change his perception about paneer, Sharma is said to have launched into a full-scale R&D to discover not just the perfect milk vendor but also standardise his recipe to get the same taste of Punjab into the paneer. It was during his research that Bipin chanced upon the secret of the Maldhari community and chose buffalo instead of cow milk to make the paneer.
Today Sharma’s Kitchen paneer has not only won the gold and silver medals from the Dairy Industry Association of Australia and the Royal Agricultural Society Awards but is considered the platinum standard of good diary products.
In fact, this story became an inspiration to many who began working on creating the same in their own region, including USA. A good quality paneer is characterised by a marble-white colour, sweet, mildly acid taste, nutty flavor, spongy body, and closely knit, smooth texture. And when you have good produce in hand, concludes Chef Rawoot, “the culinary universe is your playground.”