Cheers to chana!

Cheese in some form or the other has been a part of the cuisine of people in different corners of the world for ages. Now people abroad are discovering the goodness of India’s very own cheese- paneer, finds Anju Munshi

We always swore by it but now people abroad are also discovering our good old paneer, cottage cheese, chana or chenna whichever name you choose to call it. High on protein and fat makes this homegrown cheese a favourite among vegetarians and those on the Keto diet. Chefs prefer it because it is a ‘cheese that never melts’, says  Jill Uber, a homemaker, in the Pennsylvania, USA, because “it has a high melting point, and doesn’t crumble  when cooked in high temperature.” So it retains its shape and qualifies as a versatile protein.

Its protein nutrients is another reason for the growing interest, according to the chefs.

This soft yet firm cheese predominates the Indian platter. When combined with vegetables, be it with sweet peas, spinach, or even the humble potato it makes all the difference to the curry.

Meanwhile, a big market has emerged for artisan paneer with full cream, less cream, or even with herbs. In the US supermarket shelves regularly display these products, PIOs say.

The popularity of chicken tikka in the West is well known. Now paneer tikka is also garnering lots of interest among gourmands. Till the ‘90s paneer consumption was more or less  confined to the country, but now its appeal has caught imagination all across the globe, says Varun Patel, a chef from Mumbai.

For those with the sweet tooth , for Bengal’s famous sandesh,  gulab jamun of the north, paneer  is the preferred ingredient instead of khoya (thickened milk) for its lightness and nutritional value.

Interestingly, the art of making chana was introduced in India by foreigners. Author, food historian Chitrita Banerji writes that the art of splitting milk with vinegar and curdling it to make chana was introduced by the Portuguese who came as traders and settled down around the ports of Bengal (undivided).

Till then sweets were not made with chana. Later, Nabin Chandra Das, a poor sweetmeat maker in north Kolkata, experimented with paneer, and voila! The famed rosogolla was born. There have been debates on whether Odisha  pipped  Bengal  in making this delectable sweet but as far as sweet-lovers are concerned rosogolla and Bengal are inseparable.

There could be another reason for this late appearance of chana in India as food historian K.T.  Achaya notes pointing to “the Aryan taboo on deliberate milk curdling”.

However, nomadic tribes have been making some kind of cheese from their dairy products for a long time. The Gujjar Bakarwal tribe of J&K make a cheese called mashkrari, a ‘stretched curd’ cheese, similar to mozzarella and  ricotta, usually sun dried for longevity. To a Kashmiri the mashkrari is something to die for. It is lightly fried on a pan and garnished with salt and red chilli powder and relished with hot steamed rice. Notably, similar cheese can be found in Russia and Turkey too with different names.

Some versions of this cheese made its way through the Northwest frontier to the Himalayas. Chhurpi  made from buttermilk is found  in parts of Ladakh ,Shimla and even in Darjeeling and is popular with the Nepalese community. Cheese has an important place in every culture for it is a form of preserved milk.

Sagarika Mehta finds Bandel cheese of Kolkata delectable with a smoky and a meaty taste. Bandel, from which the cheese gets its name, is not far from Kolkata. By the way, it was a Portuguese settlement flourishing on the river port on the Hooghly.

 “Making paneer is a simple and a regular activity in Indian kitchens. I prefer making my own paneer as not only I am sure about the fat content but also ensure a soft texture,” says Rita Kaul, a teacher from Kolkata. She saves lactose-rich whey from a previous paneer batch, letting it sour for a week or so before using it as a splitting agent. “For the first time, one can   use calcium lactate available at any provision store for splitting the milk and then draining out the whey and allowing it to rest under a heavy object,” she says.

Given the current fascination with plant-based, environment-friendly cooking, paneer comes as a new messiah. There is a lot of emphasis on healthy non-meat protein and hence the white, soft and humble cheese comes handy.

“Besides the traditional palak paneer and paneer matter, we are also experimenting and reinventing  paneer pies and bakes , mostly seen at pizza stores in the West, where smoked cheese served with charred corn is a big rage,” says Arti Gujral, connoisseur of cheese and a globe trotter.

Smoked cheese stuffed with vegetables and mushroom and cheese are new combos. Paneer pies, paneer cordon bleu , are western recipes with a new twist . Paneer lasagna using slices of cheese layering with spinach tomatoes and spices, instead of pasta, thereby getting rid of the gluten, is another option for the health conscious. Paneer in wine sauce is not only exotic but doubles up  on  health quotient.

The possibilities are endless. No wonder Paneer is proving to be a hero even in lands beyond the Indian border.

Trans World Features

(Credit to author and TWF mandatory)

Images: Unsplash

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