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 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
Turmeric powder: ½ tsp
Garam masala powder: 1 tsp
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.