Savita Iyer-Ahrestani is a journalist based in State College, Pennsylvania, who writes about business, parenting, travel, and food. She has lived in Switzerland, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, the United Kingdom, Holland, and New Jersey.
There are two things I look for when I move to a new place: a beauty salon where they shape eyebrows with thread, and a store that sells Indian spices.
I was happy to be able to cross both items off my list a week after moving to the town that will be my home for the next two years. Here, I found an Iranian beautician adept in the art of eyebrow threading, and the local Wegmans is huge and well stocked, with spices from every corner of the world, including India.
There was still one thing missing, though: paneer, the milky Indian cheese I use frequently.
I assumed it would be a cinch to find, believing it would be in a freezer somewhere close to the Indian spices. But the chunks of frozen paneer that were in plentiful supply in the Indian grocery store near my former home were nowhere to be found here. And because paneer is a hot favorite in my household, I had soon exhausted the stock of slabs I’d brought before moving here.
With no paneer on hand, I had two choices: Forget about it altogether, or do something quite radical (for me, anyway) and learn how to make it myself.
Truth be told, there’s no way that frozen paneer can ever replace the soft perfection that is homemade paneer. But for whatever reason, I have always banked on the frozen kind, which really isn’t bad at all. As a busy working mother, I’m inclined toward taking the quick route wherever possible, so I had only half-listened to my mother when she repeatedly told me that homemade paneer is a piece of cake to make.
Suddenly, I felt the loneliness of being in a new place where I know no one; the distance from home washed over me in a huge wave of nostalgia for the Indian dishes of my childhood.
When I was growing up, Indian grocery stores didn’t exist, and there was no such thing as frozen paneer, so my mother always made it herself. At least twice a week, we ate her delicious Palak Paneer or Mutter Paneer (aka Mattar Paneer), the spinach and pea-based curries that are a staple in the cuisine of northern India and that my brother and I relished. A paneer dish is comfort food for me, and it has become that way for my children, too.
So, after some hesitation, I decided I would take on the challenge and make it myself. And there seemed no better occasion to do so than for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, which Hindus around the world will celebrate this Tuesday, November 13.
Our family isn’t planning any major celebration this year. We barely know anyone, as we’ve just moved here. We’re feeling bad for all our friends who suffered from the devastation that was Hurricane Sandy. We lost an uncle earlier in the year.
But for a Diwali-night dinner, a fragrant Mutter Paneer studded with chunks of paneer and laced with fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves will be perfection itself. It smacks of home, reminds us of those we love and miss, and brings us together as a family.
Just as my mother told me to, I purchased a half-gallon of whole milk and set half of it to boil in a saucepan. My mother, like all experienced cooks, has no measurements to impart. She tells me to simply drip lemon juice into the milk once it’s boiling and keep stirring it until it curdles. I am then to remove it quickly from the flames and strain it through a muslin cloth until it stops dripping. Then, I need to set it aside and place a heavy weight on top of it to let it set. It should be ready the next day to chop up into squares and put into my curry.
Mom was right on this one, too. Making my own paneer really was a piece of cake. Unfortunately, the batch I made for my trial run has already been consumed, and as I write this piece, I have not yet made my Diwali batch. But herein you have the simple steps to make your own paneer, and I’ll leave you with that.
The best Diwali wishes, from my family to yours.
Related recipe: Mom’s Mutter Paneer