Soak up the flavours

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 September, 2011, 12:00am


Anyone who's eaten Indian food has almost certainly tasted paneer. Because the milk used isn't coagulated with rennet (the stomach lining of a calf), the stark-white unaged cheese is an important part of Indian vegetarian cuisine, where it provides protein.

I've heard paneer is easy to make, although I've never attempted it. The milk is heated, an acidic coagulant added and the curds drained from the whey by hanging it in finely woven cloth and/or pressing it under weights. The texture can be soft or firm, depending on how much liquid is removed.

Paneer is rather bland on its own, but it's good at absorbing the flavour of whatever it's cooked with. It's often seasoned with spices, threaded onto skewers, then cooked in the tandoor, or simmered in a rich sauce with vegetables or legumes. It can also be ground up and used as a filling for fritters.

In Bangkok I ate paneer at a 'modern Indian-Thai vegetarian' restaurant. Most of the dishes were almost as bad as expected, but the chef made a 'Thai mock fish' using paneer instead of the usual pomfret. The paneer was moulded into the shape of the fish, coated in flour then fried. The firmness of the cheese was similar to that of the pomfret.

So far, so bland. But what lifted the dish out of the ordinary was the strong sauce. Garlic, shallots, bird's-eye chillies, shredded mango and julienned carrot were pounded in a mortar, then mixed with palm sugar, tamarind juice and fresh lime juice. It was so vividly flavoured that we didn't miss the fish sauce, which would have clashed with the restaurant's vegetarian ethos.