Shahi paneer/Indian cottage cheese curry and digging into nostalgia (part 1)

Long ago, my friend and I took a part-time job teaching people how to cook with microwave ovens. Ironically, at the time microwave ovens were absolutely new to me (and to Calcutta). I had only heard about them and may be seen them on TV a few times. Although they are still not a staple kitchen gadget, back then they were regarded as something rich people’s wives used for heating water quickly. Anyway, being desperately short of money, we took the job, no questions asked. A guy from the microwave company took us to a lady across the city in Ultadanga. We used to go to her twice a week and learn microwave cooking. She had 4-5 ovens in her kitchen from different companies. We took out our notebooks and with a serious face started our training. To give you a perspective, the only thing I knew before that class was to make an omelette. I lost my notebook but still have the one from my friend. I borrowed it from her while leaving India and never returned it to her (you know me…right).

The notebook

The only two things I remember from the cooking classes are rui machher kalia (rohu fish curry with heavier gravy) and a paneer curry which she called shahi paneer. At the time paneer was unknown to my mother’s kitchen. It was just too expensive for us. We got to taste a little bit of the cooked food we made after the class, just enough to know what to expect. I totally fell for the paneer after that first bite, it became a life long love affair….yes I just love paneer now.

The real fun started after we finished our training and went to the first prospective customer’s house. We were asked to tell the people to have the ingredients ready beforehand so that we can save some cooking time. They were vegetarian Marwari people so we asked them to have some paneer cubes and bell peppers ready for shahi paneer. May be it was my Hindi, may be something else, who knows what, but when we arrived, it was something very different. They had shredded the paneer to death. My knees went weak as I had no clue how to deal with it (remember, neither of us had a clue about cooking in the real world). Being both helpless and hapless, we called our teacher and asked for help. She suggested that we stuff the bell peppers with the paneer and then microwave them. Oh Lord…it was a life saving suggestion. We did that and to my surprise, they turned out to be really good and the customers liked them as well.

I can still feel that panic and do not want to go through that ever again in my life. My friend and I never called the company representative again and never showed up for the next assignment. I know it was not the right way to do it…but we were young and didn’t have the money or guts to do it the right way. So, here I am, stuck with the memory of a delicious creamy paneer recipe and a memorable (I hope) story.


Paneer: 400gm/16oz, cut into cubes

Ginger-garlic paste: 2 tbsp

Red chili powder/cayenne pepper: 1tsp

Kashmiri red chili powder/paprika: 1tsp

Greek yogurt: a little less than ½ cup

Bell pepper (red or yellow): 1 medium, thinly sliced

Bay leaf: 2 (optional)

Cumin powder: 1 tsp. (optional)

Tomato: 1 small (optional), chopped

Onion: 1 medium, finely chopped

Poppy seeds: 1 tbsp

Cashews: 5-6

Turmeric powder: ½ tsp

Garam masala powder: 1 tsp

Oil: 2tbsp

Cilantro: a handful

Water: 2 cups

Cream: 2 tbsp

  • Heat up the oil and shallow fry the paneer cubes until golden brown in color. They will not brown evenly and that’s absolutely fine. Do not fry them for a long time or else they will be rock hard and chewy.
  • Take them out from the oil and immerse them in hot water. That way the paneer will stay soft.
  • Soak the poppy seeds and the cashews in luke warm water for 10-15 minutes. Grind them to a fine paste.
  • Mix the ginger-garlic paste, turmeric powder and the two red chili powders together to make a paste.
  • In the same oil add bay leaves, once it changes to a slightly darker color, add the chopped onion.
  • Sauté the onions until transparent and then add the ginger-garlic-red chili powder paste.
  • Cook on medium heat until they start leaving the pan and ooze oil.
  • Add the chopped tomato (I didn’t) and cook again for few minutes until mushy.
  • Lower the heat and add the beaten yogurt. If possible, take the pot away from the heat to avoid curdling of the yogurt and then add the poppy seed-cashew paste and cook on very low heat for few more minutes.
  • Add water and boil the mixture for several more minutes to get the desired consistency (remember, after a while, the paneer will absorb some of the liquid and the gravy will thicken automatically). I keep a little bit more liquid than I want in the final gravy.
  • Add the paneer pieces (off course drain them first) and the bell peppers to the gravy, cover the pot and then cook on low heat for several more minutes. This way the paneer pieces will absorb the flavor from the gravy.
  • At the end, add the garam masala, cream and finely chopped cilantro and cover the pot.
  • Best served with either roti or any kind of Indian bread.

Notes: If you do not have poppy seeds, don’t worry, you can skip it. The cashews and the cream will give the gravy the shahi taste. You can skip the cream and the cashews altogether and it will taste lighter but still tastes good. I didn’t add tomatoes and bay leaves so you can either add them or skip them as well. Play with it and see what you like to add and what you don’t. It’s a pretty versatile recipe; you can make it lighter or richer. The addition or subtraction of some or any spice will alter the taste and you can make something different each time.


Happy Thanksgiving with pecan shortbreads

While driving home yesterday, I was stuck in traffic for 40 minutes. Funnily, this reminded me of my hometown because the same thing is happening to people there now, only several degrees worse. It’s that special time of the year when the festive season in India is over in other places but the craziness just started in my hometown. Thousands of people are on the street, chaos rules, lights are glittering all over and those gigantic idols of goddess Jagadhdhatri are standing tall and gracefully on their lions. When I call my mother I can almost hear the missing person announcements and the instructions to not touch the decorations To me all these are memories, memories of those wonderful days which are never forgettable.

Coincidentally we are preparing for a festival too but not with the same fervor though. It’s that time of the year when all Americans are ready for the holidays. It was very different for me when I came to the US, as I didn’t have a clue about Thanksgiving. It wasn’t my festival and I wasn’t a part of the celebration either.

Things started changing a little bit at a time. Now we look forward to the holidays. We feel the same festive joy as any American (or at least pretty close, I would think). We prepare far ahead of time for parties at friends’ places or invite friends over. We exchange long emails to fix the menu, get anxious over the turkeys or legs of lamb. We buy new clothes to wear on the day, exchange gifts, laugh our heart out, eat until we can’t move, drink until we collapse and so much more. I have no family here but in a foreign land, your friends are your family…at least to me, they are.

Needless to say, we are going to visit two of our friends this year for Thanksgiving who are the proud owners of a new house. Can’t explain how excited I am to be going there and to spend the holiday with some of our favorite people, for whom my husband and I made these freshly baked pecan shortbreads.

Pecan shortbread recipe:


Pecan: 1 cup

Butter: 1 cup room temperature

All purpose flour: 2 cups

Vanilla extract: 1 tsp

Salt: ¼ tsp

Brown sugar: 2/3 cup packed

  • Pre heat the oven to 350 C.
  • Toast the pecan for 8-10 minutes or until fragrant and toasty. Stir halfway. Break the pecan halves into smaller pieces.
  • In a medium to large bowl, whisk together the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy.
  • Add the vanilla extract and mix well again. If you have a mixer/blender with a paddle attachment, use it. You can use a hand blender with medium speed. My husband mixed it by hand. So, you can go totally the old fashioned way.
  • In a separate bowl, mix the flour and the salt.
  • Add the flour to the butter mixture a little at a time and fold into the butter. Do not over mix it.
  • Add in the pecan pieces and then gently fold the dough again.
  • Dump the dough in a cling film or plastic warp and wrap the dough. Flatten it like a disk and chill in the refrigerator (at least an hour). You can separate the dough in to two halves which will help the dough to chill faster.
  • Take out the dough and flatten it to ¼” thick disk with a rolling pin.
  • Line a cookie sheet with an ungreased parchment paper.
  • Cut the dough with a cookie cutter and place them one inch apart on the cookie sheet.
  • Place them in the refrigerator for another 10 minutes.
  • Place the cookie sheet in the middle of the oven and bake for 18-20 minutes or until dark brown.
  • Cool on a wire rack for another half n hour.

Notes: The dough will be a little difficult to handle. It will be crumbly, so you have to be a little patient. Shortbreads are supposed to be sand like in texture and require a lot of butter in the mix. The chilling is very important; otherwise you won’t be able to roll it. I like the shortbreads to be toasty and crisp, so I baked them a little longer. Traditionally shortbreads are much lighter in color.


Sambar/Pigeon pea lentil soup with vegetables and a confession

Delhi paanwala (DP): Kahan se ho? (Where are you from?)

My friend from South India (MF): Hyderabad.

DP: Oh! Madrasi? (People from Madras, now Chennai)

MF: Nahin, Hyderabad se hoon. (No, I am from Hyderabad)

DP: Oh, wahi hua na, sab ek hi toh hain. (Oh, it’s all the same)

MF: Nahin, ek nahin hain. (No, they’re NOT all the same.)

He was pretty upset and angry when he was telling me the story. He said “you North Indians, you think all South Indians are Madrasi?” I was laughing because for the longest time ever, I did think that all the ‘South Indians’ were ‘Madrasis’, although I didn’t tell my friend that. Instead, I said “I think it’s mutual ignorance. Just like you think that I am a ‘North Indian’, we think you are all Madrasis”. You must be thinking, this girl is really ignorant about the geography of India…yes I was, but I’m a lot better now.While I knew that there were different states in South India but for no reason, I thought they all spoke the same language and ate the same thing. I thought the food was invariably sour and loaded with tamarind. The few South Indian foods I knew were idly, dhosas (yes, Bengalis write an extra H in there) and maybe uttapams. Isn’t it outrageous? Yes it is. It’s awful. Trust me, we all are biased and have our notions about everything or at least most of the things. I was totally ignorant about so many things, I still am.

Once I came to America (the country which is considered to be a melting pot), I started learning about my own country…yes, I needed to travel several thousand miles away from India to know about something which was a few hundred miles away for twenty-something years of my life. I found friends and colleagues from ‘South India’ and gradually started learning that, no, they are not all ‘Madrasis’, they don’t understand each other’s languages, and they do eat things other than dosa, idli or uttapam. In fact, I am still learning about this fascinating part of the Indian subcontinent. The blogs I follow now are half from ‘South India’ and I love their style of cooking. Curry leaves have become a staple in my fridge and urad daal and mustard are regulars among my tempering spices.

In this post what I meant to say is, sometimes you have to get out of the box to see what’s inside the box. The vision gets really narrow when you are too close to something (that’s my opinion though, may not be true for everybody). I never thought I would be interested in learning about the history of Indian food, but I do now. I can appreciate several things about my own country which I took for granted for so many years. Here is a recipe I borrowed from my roommate and I don’t need to say that it tastes yummy.

Oh, BTW, I am not a North Indian either, in case you are thinking. I am just an Indian 😛

P.S. My husband, who has provincial biases strong even by Bengali standards, has a long-standing grudge ever since he saw something in the Indian store which said “Product of South India”. He was really upset, because nothing is ever labeled “Product of North India” or “Product of East India”.

Sambar recipe:


Toor daal/pigeon pea lentil: 2 cups

Sambar powder (I have used MTR brand but any other brand should be fine): 2-3 tbsp or more (will depend on the brand)

Red chili powder: 1 tbsp or more

Grated coconut: 1/3 cup

Turmeric powder: 1 tsp

Carrots chopped: 1 cup

Cauliflower chopped: 1 cup

Drumstick: 10-15 nos.

Bottle gourd/Lauki: 1 cup chopped

Shallots or pearl onion: 10-12 nos.

Green peas: ½ cup

Tamarind: a lemon sized ball

Water: as needed

Salt to taste

Tempering spices/tadka:

Curry leaves: few

Mustard seeds: 1tsp

Whole dried red chili: 2-3 nos.

  • Soak the tamarind in luke warm water.
  • Wash the daal with several changes of water and then pressure cook it.
  • Transfer it to a deep bottom pot and add all the vegetables (except peas).
  • Add the turmeric powder and let the vegetables cook.
  • Once the vegetables are cooked, take a little bit of the liquid daal in a separate bowl and make a paste with the sambar powder and chili powder. Add the paste to the daal and give it a good stir.
  • Drop in the peas.
  • Add the grated coconut and salt to taste as well.
  • Extract the tamarind pulp from the soaked tamarind and add it to the daal. Mix well again.
  • Let the daal cook for few more minutes and check for taste. If you need more salt, sourness or heat, add accordingly.
  • Heat up the oil in a separate kadai/pot and add the whole mustard seeds. The moment they start spluttering, add the red chilis and the curry leaves. Once the red chilis change color, add the tadka/tempering spices to the daal and cover immediately.
  •  Keep it covered for another 5 minutes or so, mix the spices with daal and then your sambar is ready to be served.

I got this recipe from my old roommate and have been following it ever since. She is from Guntur, Andhrapradesh, so her sambar might be different from other regions. She said traditionally they add dried coconut powder, but she adds regular grated coconut in the US. If you have dried coconut powder in hand, you can use it.

I like my sambar to be a little hot, so you can adjust the chili powder according to your own taste.

You can add more tamarind as well if you like your sambar on the tangy side.

I wish I could make my own sambar powder but unfortunately I don’t. I don’t make it very often, and use store bought one. One day I’ll roll up my sleeves and do it. I used MTR brand and liked it. I have used Aachi brand before and had no complaints either.

I used shallots this time but my roommate used regular onions chopped thick. Previously I used frozen pearl onion and they tasted good as well.

You can add green beans or okra in the sambar too. I added whatever I had in the fridge.

Bhai phota/ Bhai dooj celebration with sondesh/Pistachio and cottage cheese balls

ভাইয়ের কপালে দিলাম ফোঁটা, যমের দুয়ারে পড়ল কাঁটা। যমুনা দেয় যমকে ফোঁটা, আমি দিই আমার ভাইকে ফোঁটা॥ যমুনার হাতে ফোঁটা খেয়ে যম হল অমর। আমার হাতে ফোঁটা খেয়ে আমার ভাই হোক অমর॥

The loose translation would be:

“I put an auspicious dot on my brother’s forehead to make my brother immortal

Yamuna puts an auspicious dot on Yama’s forehead and I put on my brother’s

Yama became immortal after getting the dot from Yamuna

My brother will be immortal after getting the dot from me”

Probably it doesn’t make any sense to you if you do not already know about the occasion. Bhai phota (Bhai=brother, phota= dot) is celebrated on the second day of Diwali which is why it’s also called Bhratri dwitiya or Bhai dooj too (Bhatri=brother, dwitiya/dooj=second). As you may have guessed from the name, it’s the festival of brothers and sisters. No, you don’t have to have your own brother to celebrate it. In India or at least in my community, it was for all the cousins and even the brothers from our neighborhood. That’s the beauty of our culture and I truly appreciate it.

The mythical story says that Yama (the God of Death) came down to earth to meet his twin sister Yamuna on this particular day and she made food and fed Yama to his satisfaction. She also put an auspicious mark/dot on her brother’s forehead and prayed for his well being. So, Yama in return said that whoever gets a mark/phota on this day from his sister will be immortal and will never experience hell. Since then it’s been a tradition among most of the Hindus to celebrate this particular day to wish immortality to their brothers by putting an auspicious dot on their brothers’ forehead.

For a long time my mother and I went to my mamabaari (maternal uncle’s place) to celebrate bhaiphota. We used to go the day before to prepare for the occasion ahead of time. We woke up early on the day, took a bath, wore fresh clothes and prepared plates of sweet and savory things for our brothers. We were not allowed to eat until we were done with the ceremony. We put a mark on each brother’s forehead with chandanbata (sandal wood paste), kajol (kohl paste) and doi (yogurt). After that we fed them sweets and put a little bit of durba (young grass shoots) and dhan (rice) on their head to bless them (this only if we were elder than our brothers). The house used to be filled with people and it was a true celebration. My Maa did the same thing with my Mamas (Maa’s brothers). We had scrumptious meals after the ceremony and got gifts from our brothers as well.

I have been missing bhaiphota for the last six years and I still hope that I could be there at least once in the future. I miss my brother a lot and especially on bhaiphota, I miss him even more. As sweets or sondesh (Bengali cottage cheese sweets) were a big part of the celebration, here is a recipe for this uniquely Bengali delicacy I made to share with you. I won’t claim it’s an authentic recipe, because it’s not. I totally made up the recipe based on all the sondesh I have eaten over the years and added lovely pistachio nuts to give it a delicate green color.

Pesta sondesh/Pistachio and cottage cheese balls

Whole milk: 6 cups

Pistachios: ½ cup and few more to garnish

Vinegar: 1 tbsp, diluted with 3 tbsp of water

Sugar: 1 cup

Cardamom: Seeds from 2 pods

  • Soak the pistachios in water.
  • De-shell them and grind them to a coarse paste.
  • Coarsely grind the cardamom seeds.
  • Bring up the milk to a full boil.
  • Add the vinegar slowly and stir well You might not have to add the whole amount of vinegar)
  • Turn off the heat and wait for the whey to separate completely.
  • Drain the whey on a cheese cloth or any fine cotton cloth and run cold water on the cottage cheese/chhana to get rid of the sour vinegar taste/smell.
  • Tie the cloth and hang it for 20-30 mns.
  • Squeeze the remaining water and knead the chhana to a smooth paste.
  • Transfer the chhana to a clean wok. (You can see how to make chhana here)
  • Add the ground pistachio and add the sugar and cardamom powder as well.
  • Cook the chhana and the pistachio paste for several minutes on low heat until you get rid of the raw chhana taste.
  • The chhana will come together and start leaving the wok.
  • Turn off the heat and wait for 1-2 mns.
  • Knead the dough well with hand and then form balls from them.

Do not wait for a long time; the sandesh will develop cracks if the dough has been sitting for a long time. Cover the dough with a lid while you are making the balls.

You can add more or less sugar. I go low on sugar and that’s how I like it. You can add green food coloring if you want to. I didn’t and liked the natural light green tinge. I have seen people adding food coloring in the sweets to make them look brighter….so it’s your call.

You can find great sondesh recipes here, here and here.

Dipabolir shubhechcha Rashomalai diye/Happy Diwali with Rasmalai

Diwali, the festival of lights needs no introduction. It’s almost an international festival now. I think this is the only festival in India which is celebrated by most of the communities. Diwali is celebrated during October-mid November, around fifteen days after Durga Puja. To Bengalis, it’s Kali Puja (worshipping Goddess Kali) and dipaboli (Bengali for Diwali).

The word Diwali came from the Sanskrit word “Deepavali” which translates to ‘rows of lights’ (deep=lamp, avali=row). The entire country is illuminated on this particular festive day. There are several theories about the origin of Diwali. According to one theory, it’s the celebration of the return of Lord Rama from his fourteen years of exile. His return was celebrated in his capital Ayodhya by lighting deeps (earthen lamps) and bursting firecrackers. Another one says it’s the celebration of Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Vishnu’s marriage. In Bengal it’s the celebration of Kali, the Goddess of strength. Diwali is very significant among Jains (believer of Jainism) too; it’s the day when Lord Mahavir attained Nirvana. Whatever the history is, every Indian celebrates Diwali with equal joy and happiness. It’s another festival of the victory of Good over Evil. People exchange sweets and snacks and the sky lights up with fireworks.

Bengalis have a tradition of lighting choddo prodip (choddo=fourteen prodip=earthen lamps) on the day before Kali Puja to offer respect to fourteen generations of their forefathers. When I was a kid, we had a tradition of eating choddo shaak (a combined dish of fourteen leafy green vegetables) too. It was so much fun to collect the leafy greens. You could always buy them from the market, but that would spoil the whole fun. I was the one who will go to the neighbors and exchange the greens with the aunts. Sometimes we got them from their gardens and shared some from our garden as well. I don’t know if my mother still does it or not. On the day of deepaboli, we would light candles all over our house. It looked wonderful; the whole neighborhood was decorated with flickering lights all over. In the evening we took out our stash of fire crackers and it was so much fun to go through all of them. My Maa used to make ghugni (dry peas curry) and Baba used to buy sweets from the market. After I moved to the US, I no longer celebrate deepaboli as extensively as I used to, but I still light diyas on that day. I maintain the choddo prodip tradition because my mother-in-law wants me to (and I like it too).

I am sharing my Rasmalai/Rashomalai recipe with you all on this festive day. I hope you all are having a wonderful Diwali. May your lives light up with joy and happiness!



Milk: 5 cups

Evaporated milk: 1 cup

Rashogolla/rasgulla: 6-8

Sugar: 11/2 cups (more or less if you prefer)

A pinch of salt

Cardamom: 2-3 nos.

Bay leaf: 2 nos.

Pistachios: 10-12 nos.

How to do it:

  • Soak the pistachios in water.
  • Mix the milk with the evaporated milk and start boiling it on mdeium flame. Add the bay leaves and the cardamoms (slightly smashed). Be very careful, otherwise it might either stick to the bottom of the pan or spil over. You have to bring the volume to 2/3 of the original volume. You can totally omit the evaporated milk. I add it to save time. You can use regular whole milk and bring the volume down.
  • Squeeze the rasgullas and drain the excess sugar syrup from them. Slightly flatten them.
  • Add the rasgullas to the boiling milk and boil for 5 minutes (put it on medium flame).
  • Add the sugar and the tiny pinch of salt. Boil for another 5 minutes. Check for sweetness and add more sugar if needed.
  • Chop the pistachios to fine pieces and add them to the milk. Turn off the heat.
  • Cool the milk and once it comes to room temperature, refrigerate it.
  • Serve chilled.