Dad gave me a sheaf of recipes when I left home, and paneer was at the top of the list. Recipes passed on by word of mouth and that aren't written down, must be common for so many families. Luckily, my Kashmiri grandma, my Ammi, used to give Kashmiri cooking classes to Mum’s friends when she came to stay from New Delhi and so Dad stood with Ammi by the stovetop and wrote down her recipes as she cooked.
This paneer recipe was one of them.
Paneer is called chaman in Kashmiri. Kashmir is mountain country, and so our food is just the thing for mountain a climate - rich and warm. The spicing falls into the sweet-savoury spectrum which means using a lot of cinnamon, mace and clove alongside earthier spices like cumin seed and ground coriander. The scarcity of fresh ginger in mountain geography also means that ground ginger is a spice staple.
Oh, and garam masala of course. Kashmiri garam masala has its own aromatic profile that’s really different, to say, Punjabi garam masala. Families across India tend to have their own garam masala recipes, and our family is no different. They’re hard to get, though! Mothers hold their recipes from daughters until the time is right. I received my garam masala recipe from my aunt, my Chachi, just last year. It’s the finishing touch on what is really rich and delicious paneer.
But even if you don’t have Kashmiri garam masala, it’s worth looking up a recipe and making your own fresh ground garam masala for the impact it has on the end dish.
Paneer does take a bit of time to make, but the investment is worth it. Making the curd the day before results in a better final dish - it’s much easier to fry the cubed paneer if it’s been hung long enough to dry and firm up a little bit.
Be sure to give yourself the right amount of time to reduce the whey into the masala base: cooking low and slow allows the fried chaman to take on the spice and draw in the sweetness from the tomato. It’s such a fragrant process when the aroma fills the kitchen - it might make you hungry, but you won’t mind the wait. A handy tip and the best way to remove any excess oil from the cheese isn't to drain it on a paper towel, but to put it straight from the fryer into a bowl of water and the oil comes off and rises to the surface.
The richness of Kashmiri tamatar chaman calls for simple accompaniments: well-cooked Basmati rice and a simple yellow dal with a little mango pickle on the side is a winning thali and a peek into Kashmiri culinary tradition.
Love this story? You can follow the author via Instagram @sarina_kamini. Photography, styling and food preparation by Sarina Kamini.
Paneer with tomato and peas (tamatar chaman)
Start this dish the day before. It's important that the curd dries out to prevent it from splitting apart when frying. Chaman is the roast lamb eaten in Kashmiri households.
- 3 litre full-fat milk
- 2 tbsp yoghurt
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 3 cups vegetable oil
- 2 tbsp ghee
- 1 tsp salt
- ⅓ tsp ground turmeric
- ½ tsp ground red chilli
- ⅓ tsp ground ginger
- ⅓ tsp ground cassia
- ¼ ground cinnamon
- 2 cm x 3 cm piece of ginger, finely grated
- 2 tsp cumin seeds
- 3 tsp ground coriander
- 1 cinnamon quill
- 4 pods green cardamom, cracked
- 6 clove buds
- 2 cm x 2 cm piece jaggery
- 3 tomatoes, blanched and peeled, finely diced
- 1½ cups peas, cooked
- 400 ml whey
- 1 tsp garam masala
- Pour the milk into a large pot over high heat. Stir continuously until the milk begins to boil and rise. This should take around 15 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and quickly stir in the yoghurt.
- Tip in the lemon juice and stir until the curds and whey separate. The whey will turn a very pale yellow, and the curds will be distinct. This should happen within 10 seconds. If the milk doesn't split, add more lemon juice until it does.
- Place a bowl beneath a strainer lined with a muslin cloth. Pour the curds and whey into the muslin-lined strainer to catch the curd in the muslin and to reserve the whey in the bowl. Tie up the muslin cloth and hang the curd for 12 to 24 hours in a cool place. Pour the whey into a jug, cover and keep in the fridge.
- Unwrap the curd from the muslin and cut it into 2 cm x 2 cm cubes. Fill a large bowl with cold water and place it alongside you with the paneer and whey.
- Heat 3 cups of vegetable oil in a large, heavy-based wok or pot for deep frying.
- Heat the oil on medium-high, until a cube of potato browns in 30 seconds. Paneer is delicate and burns easily. When hot, fry the paneer cubes in small batches, turning in the oil until just browned. This should take around 15-seconds per batch. Remove paneer cubes from the hot oil and put them directly into the bowl of cold water. This will help to remove the excess oil. Set it aside.
- Off the heat, add 2 tbsp ghee, jaggery and the fresh and dried spices, except for the garam masala, in a large frying pan.
- Place the frying pan with ghee, jaggery and spices on the stovetop and heat, stirring on medium-low until the ghee has melted and the spices have begun to temper and become aromatic. This should take around 90 seconds. Take care not to caramelise or burn the spices.
- Turn the heat down to low and add the peeled, balanced and finely diced tomatoes. Stir on low heat until the spice mix thickens. This will take between 4-5 minutes.
- Drain the water from the paneer cubes and add to the frying pan with the cooked peas. Stir through the spice mix until well combined. Tip 400 ml of reserved whey into the pan, until the paneer is almost covered. Bring to medium heat until it simmers. Once simmering, turn down to medium-low heat and cook, stirring occasionally for between 90 minutes and 2 hours. The whey should be mostly cooked down but the frying pan should not be dry. The paneer should be rich and fragrant.
- Just before serving, stir through 1 tsp of garam masala and serve with rice and dahl.
• Jaggery is unrefined cane sugar that can be bought from Indian or Asia grocers. It can be replaced with dark, unrefined sugar like rapadura or coconut sugar. If you make a mistake and forget to reserve the whey, use vegetable stock to cook down the paneer.