Paneer is a versatile ingredient in the Indian kitchen, especially so for vegetarians. This cottage cheese of India is easily flavoured, delicious with most breads and of course, rice.
Paneer was a significant fixture in the food I ate as a child. My mum used to add cubes of this soft but sturdy cheese into curries. The paneer would then soak up the spicy gravy, and would just ooze with glory in every bite. However, I didn’t have many other forms of paneer, other than in curries.
Paneer with spinach, or with tomato gravy like you see here, was not commonly cooked at home. We usually went out to a restaurant to have that, if at all. So this was literally the first time I experimented with paneer as a standalone dish, not associated with any curry. I am happy to (ex)claim that it turned out quite well.
After the usual testing rounds and fixes here and there, I present to you my Paneer Dhaba recipe. I thought it most appropriate to launch this recipe now, in light of Deepavali, because vegetarians don’t get a lot of the market share during this festival. Strictly speaking though, a traditional Deepavali feast would be vegetarian. However, we live in times where we cannot imagine a Deepavali without the token Chicken Briyani, or a meat dish of some sort. Greed… it always finds a way.
A dhaba is 24 hour street stall selling delicious, hot, street food. Dhabas are very common in Punjab, India and came into being once they built the highways connecting Punjab to other states. Dhabas represent a classic case of when supply met need. People who were travelling all around the clock look forward to the short break a dhaba can offer them, with steaming hot food, a nice cool drink and some company before they hit the road again.
This dhaba-style paneer recipe takes after the classic Paneer dry curries cooked at such dhabas in various parts of India. Although this recipe here contains some short cuts and is cooked in a much smaller quantity compared to the dhabas, one bite of this and you’ll be wondering what else you can turn into a dhaba recipe.
You can buy frozen paneer; heaven knows not everyone has time to make this stuff at home. It comes cubed AND frozen, which is a dream.
You can use a chopper to chop the onion(s), ginger and garlic.
You can use the same chopper to them pulverise the tomatoes.
Start by tossing the thawed paneer cubes with the spices, salt and vegetable oil. Set aside.
In a heavy based saucepan, add the ghee and oil. Once the ghee runs clear over medium heat, add the whole spices and temper for 1.5 minutes. Then, add the chopped onions, ginger and garlic. Saute until the onion becomes a light brown. Take care not to burn then onions - you can turn the heat down to low if that’ll help you control the browning process.
At this stage, add the spice powders, curry leaves and coriander leaves. Stir and mix the dry paste well for about 1 min, before adding the tomatoes, water and salt. Mix thoroughly and allow the water to evaporate. If your tomatoes are especially watery, do not add the ¼ cup of water. Go by eye, and trust your instincts.
When the water from the tomatoes has evaporated and the mixture is a deep, dark maroon, remove from heat and set aside while you fry the cubes of paneer in ghee.
In a large skillet, add the 2 tablespoons of ghee and let it heat up, over medium heat. Then, add the cubes of paneer and fry (as evenly as you can manage - I am not very good at this. However, I can assure you it tastes great even is some parts of the paneer aren’t crispy), taking care not to burn the paneer. Once fried, or when you’re satisfied with it, transfer the paneer to the tomato gravy and stir through.
Garnish with fresh sprigs of coriander and serve with roti.
You can buy frozen paneer; heaven knows not everyone has time to make this stuff at home. It comes cubed AND frozen, which is a dream. You can use a chopper to chop the onion(s), ginger and garlic. You can use the same chopper to them pulverise the tomatoes.