The bland paneer works beautifully as a vehicle for a few choice flavours.
Paneer is not just popular, it's become ubiquitous and no “party” meal seems complete without it. Particularly when a meat-eating household is entertaining vegetarians, we seem to think of paneer as a substitute for the murghs musallam and kadahi. I sometimes wonder what was wrong with a couple of well made green vegetables; particularly when the paneer made for parties is embellished and enriched with all the spices one would normally add to a mutton curry. And cream. And, I suspect, white sauce disguised as cream. And cashew paste.
I can get quite carried away with this pet hate, which is unfair to the almost blameless paneer. Paneer's only crime is that it's tasteless. When basic raw paneer has been badly made it is, at worst, powdery and dry. At best, creamy, soft and bland. And the bland works beautifully as a vehicle for a few choice flavours. Not as a 16-wheel container truck carrying an excess of ghee, butter, cream and garam masala. Another mistake we Indian cooks make is overcooking. Paneer is already cooked. Whether we curdle it fresh, at home, or buy it readymade, it's ready to eat, bar the addition of one's choice of spices. Why do we then fry it before cooking? Probably because we cannot bear plain white pieces – good Indian food must be brown or at least orange. I avoid frying it because I'm scared of consuming too much oil, but the other night I decided to quickly flash fry the paneer cubes before adding them to gravy. My excuse is that I was trying out a new recipe from a book of Bengali recipes I've come to trust (Black Kite's Pumpkin Flower Fritters). But the frying added nothing to the taste. Fortunately the paneer itself hadn't been allowed to become tough, which is what happens to caterers' paneer, which tastes like Hawaii chappal soles.
It seems there was never a time when Indians didn't eat paneer, but I'm sure that apart from a few Punjabis and Bengalis it wasn't as rampant among the rest of us. Now of course you can't have a dosa without paneer masala, a roll of khandvi without a stuffing of grated cabbage, carrots and paneer (this must be in the “Health Food” section). Uttappams are topped with paneer and samosas are stuffed with it. What happened to limiting paneer to good old matar paneer, palak paneer and paneer parathas?
Or is this part of the usual trend: every dinner table must have pasta, baked vegetables and paneer? I think we're trying to internationalise it by referring to it as cottage cheese: giving it an American name makes it sound more hip. To me the word “cottage” implies English cottages, with an aproned, apple-cheeked English farmer's wife “bagging” the cheese in her cottage kitchen, but apparently “cottage cheese” (or “cottager's cheese”) is an Americanism. With this misnomer we begin to imagine that it's traditionally eaten in the West too, because they have something called cottage cheese, that which is found in tubs in every supermarket. But our paneer is quite different, although India is not the only country where it's made; panir and peynir are the Persian words for a cheese very similar to ours. Other places in the Near East have a tradition too and Turkey makes Beynaz and Kasar peynirs.
But having said all that, I enjoy cooking and eating paneer, not least because it takes just a minute – it only takes as long as the cooking time of the masalas you choose to cook it in. And most of all because its very blandness lends itself to the most delicate spicing. It pairs well with tomatoes – puréed or chopped – in Indian khana. Witness the other abomination, Paneer Makhani, aka Tomato Paneer.
I don't use paneer much in Western cooking, but it's a workable substitute for fish. Cut into wide rectangles, “fillets”, it can be quickly rubbed with salt, paprika, and a pinch each of rosemary and thyme, then dusted in flour and pan fried for a minute. Good with salad and sautéed vegetables. Paneer also makes a delicious filling for sandwiches, more moist than processed cheese.
Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi and works with Pratham's ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).