India is not a monolith. Each state has its own language, its own forms of art and music, and variations in cuisine. While the states within a region of India (North, South, East and West) may share some similarities in their cuisine, the flavor profile of the same dish within a region could be markedly different depending on which combinations of colonial powers laid claim to that particular state and on the ingredients that are readily available in the state. For instance, despite being neighbouring states, Kerala and Tamilnadu have very different dishes. While Tamilnadu has savory, crispy rice and lentil crepes served with savory coconut chutney and lentil soup (sambar) for breakfast, Kerala does not. Instead, one would be served spongy, slightly sweet pancake like appam with a vegetable or meat stew. Paneer butter masala, from the Northern part of India is a dish one is likely to find in any Indian restaurant in the USA. Within the subcontinent itself, dishes that use cream and butter are a rarity, paneer butter masala being one of a few. Paneer butter masala is a decadent, indulgent dish – a treat. Paneer is Indian cottage cheese that does not melt but holds its shape when cooked (like halloumi). Unlike tofu, it readily soaks up whatever flavours it is cooked in. It can be sauteed, seared, fried, or grilled and thus finds use in many kinds of dishes, including appetizers, entrees, and even desserts. The best place to get it would be from any Indian grocery store. While major retail stores do carry it, the price per ounce tends to be greater.
Paneer Butter Masala
*Paneer – 14oz (or 1lb block if that’s available)
*Butter – 2 tbsp
*Whipping cream – 2 tbsp
Tomato paste – 1 can
Onion – 1, diced
Ginger – 1 inch
Garlic – 3 cloves
Cashews – ¼ cup
Turmeric – ¼ tsp
**Kashmiri mirchi powder – 1 tsp
Garam masala – 3 tsp
Kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves) – 2 tbsp
Salt – 2 tsp
Cinnamon bark – 2 inch
Cloves – 6
Cardamom pods – 4
Bay leaf – 2
Pan with lid
- Cube paneer and let soak in warm water for 15 minutes. This helps makes the texture softer and more amenable to soaking up the sauce it will be cooked in.
- Soak cashews in lukewarm water for 15 minutes.
- Heat pan and add 2 tbsp olive oil
- Add the diced onion and saute on low flame until the onions are golden and carmelized. Be careful to not let them brown or burn.
- Heat the pan on low and add the powdered spices (1/4 tsp turmeric, 1 tsp Kashmiri chili powder, and 3 tsp of garam masala) to the caramelized onions and stir well to incorporate. The key is to get the spices to “bloom” but not burn.
- Add a little more than half the can of tomato paste (about 8 tbsp) and stir to mix. Saute the tomato-onion mix until the tomato paste darkens and carmelizes.
- Drain the soaking water and add the softened cashews to the pan and stir to mix with the onion-tomato paste.
- Add half a cup of cold water to a blender. Allow the onion-tomato-cashew paste to cool a little and add a blender. Blend to a bisque-like consistency. Add more water as needed. (In all, I added 1.5 cups of water.)
- Rinse the pan and return to the stove. When pan is hot, add 1 tbsp olive oil and then 2 tbsp butter. The oil prevents the butter from burning.
- Reduce the flame to low and add the whole spices: 6 cloves, 4 cardamom pods, 1 cinnamon bark, and 2 bay leaves.
- Stir for about 3 minutes on low flame. The spices have to infuse the butter-oil mixture without burning. (Burnt spices impart a very bitter taste.)
- Remove the whole spices. This is an optional step. I prefer doing this so no one accidentally bites into a whole spice. Whole spices have an intense burst of flavor and biting into a whole cardamom pod would leave its overpowering/lasting taste.
- Crush/grind the ginger and garlic together to a paste. At low flame, add the ginger-garlic paste to the oil and butter. Saute quickly so the ginger-garlic doesn’t burn.
- Add the blended onion-tomato-cashew mixture to the pan.
- Stir well. Taste and add any salt/garam masal/chili powder, if necessary.
- Put the lid on and allow this curry to simmer until it reduces a little.
- Add the cubed paneer to the curry and stir***.
- Let the paneer soak up the flavor of the sauce, and allow it to simmer for about 10 minutes on low flame. Stir frequently.
- Crush the kasuri methi between the palms of your hands and add to the curry and stir.
- Finish off the paneer butter masala by adding 3 tbsps of whipping cream and stiring to mix.
- Garnish with cilantro and enjoy hot with warm basmati rice or naan.
*While it wouldn’t quite be “paneer butter,” vegans can substitute tofu for the paneer, nutmilk cream for the whipping cream, and vegan butter.
**Kashmiri mirchi powder is dried Kashmiri red chillies (mirchi = chili). It has a milder flavor profile (less heat) while being intensely red in color. It is used in Indian cuisine for a milder-tasting curry. You can substitute with paprika (not smoked) or cayenne, if hard to procure.
***You can add cooked green peas at this step to make this paneer mutter (peas) curry.
Recipe and photo credit: Vinola V. Munyon