Kamaldeep Singh ate his first paneer tikka chapati roll when he was four. He remembers it so clearly because it’s the first food he ever liked. He was a fussy kid in a household privileged to have more than enough food on the table every night. Food was an ordinary part of life, like breathing and sleeping – not good or bad, just there. Until the paneer tikka chapati.
In the Singh home, regular paneer tikka was an everyday meal: cottage cheese cooked in a tandoor oven and then mixed into a curry. It’s the same for many households in Punjab, an Indian region where paneer and tandoor cooking are extremely popular. The night before the first paneer tikka chapati was one of those regular nights. As usual, there were leftovers and, like so many enterprising parents all over the world, Singh’s mum, Ranjit Kaur, saw an opportunity.
First, she placed a chapati (an unleavened, wholemeal bread that’s typically fried on a flat grill) on the kitchen bench, layered the curried paneer, some mint chutney and spinach, rolled it up, fried it in butter and served it as a roll. “You know, back in that time, the food was basic – my mum did whatever she could to make it interesting. This experiment really worked. It wasn’t a leftover for me, it was more exciting,” he says.
Now Singh is 10,733 km away from his mother, and the owner of two Sydney restaurants named Punjabi Fusion: the city's Miller’s Point site is a semi-fine-diner focusing on mixing Indian and European technique, while the Harris Park location has a reputation for serving some of Sydney’s best Punjabi cuisine.
Singh can eat restaurant food whenever he likes – and even though he set up his Harris Park restaurant to rep the cuisine of his hometown, that’s not where he goes for a taste of nostalgia. His dearest memories of eating are all tied to the person who taught him how to cook, his mum. To get cooking like that, he either has to bring his mother over from India, or make it himself. “When I go to India and she comes here, I ask her to make it for me. She loves cooking for me. It’s her greatest happiness when I ask.”
Singh could probably name 100 things he misses from his mum’s kitchen, but the one he'll always think of when he needs a hit of childhood comfort is her paneer tikka chapati (he also makes particular mention of her six-hour lamb curry, but that's another story).
“When I go to India and she comes here, I ask her to make it for me. She loves cooking for me. It’s her greatest happiness when I ask.”
Now is certainly one of those times. “We have lost almost 90 percent of our trade. In the city, we are completely quiet, nobody is in the city. It’s very hard," he says. “If the government supports us, we will continue, but if we don’t get anything maybe we will have to close down.”
In the meantime, thanks to the lifting of some lockdown trading restrictions, both restaurants are now able to serve 10 diners at a time and also make some revenue from takeaway orders.
For Singh, the best paneer tikka chapati is made from scratch. Back in his hometown of Khanna, in India's north, his mum would make fresh paneer from buffalo’s milk, prepare a new batch of mint chutney, and, almost daily, make chapati from scratch with local atta-style wholemeal flour. He doesn’t make it like this, because he rarely has the time, but it’s important to learn how to do so. “My mum has so much knowledge and so many recipes we don’t even know. I'm asking her to write all her recipes down or slowly teach me. I don’t want these recipes to be lost.”
Singh says he feels the same about his son, hoping one day he can be the same role model for his child as his mum was for him. Singh’s kid is three, just a year younger than Singh was when he had his first paneer tikka chapati roll. So, we ask, has he made it for his kid yet? “No. My son is only three at the moment. He doesn’t even eat spice, any spice. He eats only pasta and pizza. It's hard for parents to make interesting food. He is so young, he can’t enjoy it.”
Maybe not for long.
Paneer chapati roll
- 200 g marinated paneer
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 small green capsicum
- 1 small red onion, finely sliced
- ⅓ tsp ground turmeric
- ¼ tsp deggi mirch chilli powder
- ⅓ tsp fine sea salt
- 1 green chilli, finely chopped
- 180 ml makhani sauce
- 4 chapati
- 50 g baby spinach, washed and dried with a paper towel
- 20 coriander leaves
- Kabab masala, to serve
- 70 g melted unsalted butter, to serve
- Mint chutney, to serve
1. Preheat oven grill setting to medium-high heat, around 220˚C.
2. Put the paneer pieces on a lined baking sheet and place the sheet in the oven – position on a rack around medium height (you don’t want it too close to the element). Grill for 8 minutes, turning once or twice, or until golden. Take the paneer out of the oven and, once cool, cut the paneer pieces in half.
3. Heat oil in a frying pan over high heat. Add the capsicum, half the red onion and fry for 3 minutes, stirring often. Turn the heat to medium-low and add the turmeric, chilli powder, salt and green chilli, and cook for 1 minute. Add the makhani sauce and cook until warmed through and bubbling, then add the grilled paneer, turn to coat and remove from the heat.
4. To assemble a roll, take a chapati and lay it flat on a clean surface. Arrange the filling components in a neat rectangle in the centre of the roti: a quarter of the spinach, then a quarter of the remaining sliced onion, 5 coriander leaves, and finally a quarter of the paneer mixture. Sprinkle a big pinch of kabab masala on top of the filling. To roll, fold each of the long sides into the middle, then fold both ends in, then roll tightly into a log shape. Set to one side and form the rest of the roti rolls.
5. Brush each roll with the liquid butter.
6. To finish, place the frying pan back over high heat and fry two rolls at a time for 30 seconds or until golden. Then turn and sear for a further 30 seconds or until similarly golden. Remove from the pan and slice each roti roll in half, on the diagonal. Serve immediately, with mint chutney on the side for dipping.
• Many of the ingredients – like the chapati (available pre-cooked and par-cooked), kabab masala and mint chutney – can be found at Indian grocers.
This is a traditional Timorese recipe passed to Ibu Amye Un from her mother and grandmother.