Paneer Butter Masala

Paneer Butter Masala

I like looking at cook books, but the Indian cooking ones usually scare me.  The list of ingredients will be long and complicated and some recipes will say something to the effect of “two medium tomatoes” and “one large onion” and “a generous pinch of cumin.” I am unsure of what that means, having had a bad experience or two with such directions in the past.   Invariably my proportion of tomatoes to onions will be completely off, and the overly generous pinch of cumin will have made my food too bitter.  “Spices are supposed to be the seasoning not the main ingredient,” my husband will tactfully remark when he comes home to a rather heavily spiced poorly cooked aloo dum, that tastes even stranger because I’ve tried to add, what I believe to be offsets to the extra cumin and tomatoes, including lots of extra butter and yogurt.   At the other extreme are recipes that spell out 350 grams of potatoes and 200 grams of green beans, and I find these impossible too.  It’s far easier to visualize things in cups and tablespoons than upon a weighing scale.

So when I come across a Paneer Makhani recipe that provides directions such as “two cups of tomato puree, one cup of chopped onions and two cups of chopped paneer pieces” in the process of casually flipping through a cookbook, I get very excited because I know that one cup means one beautiful measurable cup.  About 200ml or 237 ml to be more precise.  Clearly the ratio of tomatoes to onions is two to one.   I try out the recipe, it comes out fairly well, and then it gets added to my limited cooking repertoire.  Each time I have to produce a “party dish” or when my paneer-loving younger brother comes to visit, this recipe makes an appearance.  I never have to think.  The key ingredients are easily measurable and the prep and cooking time is under an hour.  I know the taste of the dish will vary based upon the quality of the tomatoes in season or the pungency of the onions.  But by and large, my paneer is always successful, and over time I start changing an ingredient or two here and there, and soon have my own favorite version of Paneer Butter Masala.

Paneer, a pressed Indian home-made cheese, is sold packaged in the refrigerator section of most Indian grocery stores.  What makes this paneer dish really flavorful is the use of a little chopped onions and dried fenugreek leaves, fried separately and added to the dish at the end, along with a tablespoonful of honey (ideas borrowed from the queen bee of Indian vegetarian cooking, Tarla Dalal).   Red chilli powder is optional as I find that my toddler son is far more likely to enjoy the paneer without the chilli.  I also like to finish the gravy and then add the chopped paneer pieces at the end after turning off the flame.  I let the paneer marinate in the gravy, and then reheat thoroughly just before serving.  You can reheat whenever the dish needs to be served, up until the next day.   The paneer will absorb all the flavors of the sauce, and become juicy and succulent.

Paneer Butter Masala

Serves 4

Initial tarka:
2 tbsps clarified butter called ghee
Optional, pieces of whole garam masala: a 1/2” piece of cinnamon stick, 1 clove, 1 green cardamom pod, 1 large bay leaf

Wet masala, to be ground to a paste together:
1 ½ cup of onions, 1 cup cut into large chunks and the rest finely diced.  Keep the diced portion aside.
2 tbsps of broken cashew nuts, or 7-8 whole pieces
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled
1” piece of ginger, peeled

To be added later:
2 cups of tomato puree made from freshly chopped or canned tomatoes

Dry masalas:
½ tsp of garam masala powder
1 tsp of turmeric
½ tsp of cumin powder
1 tbsp of dried fenugreek leaves called kasuri methi
1 tsp of red chilli powder, optional

For the end:
1 tbsp of honey
1 cup of milk
2 cups or 400g/14 oz of paneer, chopped into small pieces
salt to taste

1.  Heat the ghee in a pan on medium heat and when hot, add the pieces of whole garam masala (optional).  After a few seconds of sizzling, add the ground wet masala paste comprised of onions, garlic, ginger and cashew nuts.  Fry until the paste turns medium brown.

2. Add the tomato puree, along with a ½ cup of water.  Add the turmeric and chilli powder (if using) and cook until the oil floats to the surface of the masala.  This will take a while, about 30 minutes.  Stir occasionally to ensure that the paste is cooking evenly.

3. Meanwhile, fry the ½ cup of chopped onions and kasuri methi in a separate pan with a bit of ghee.   Add this to the cooked paste, along with milk, a ½ cup of water, cumin powder, garam masala powder, honey and salt to taste.  If the sauce seems too thick, add some more milk.  Cook until the mixture comes to a boil.  Add the paneer and continue cooking for a few minutes if serving immediately.  Otherwise, turn off the flame and reheat when ready to serve.

Stir-fried Okra

Okra, called bhindi

Sometimes when I am in the kitchen, the strongest association that I have with the food, in this case okra, is the memory of a two-and-half year old Agastya hovering around, helping in some way or just getting involved in the vegetable that I am making.  My mother has always claimed that all little children love okra, called bhindi in Hindi, and Agastya has been no exception.  He loves eating stir-fried okra on his own, fingers eagerly cramming the crispy green circles into his mouth.  I do not ever need to follow him around with a plate of food that holds okra to bribe or tempt him to eat a morsel.  This means that when I tell him that I am about to make okra, his little body comes expectantly into the kitchen to inspect what I am doing.  He demands to be placed on the counter while I chop.  Agastya excitedly fingers the okra, examines its shape and texture, and counts the chopped pieces that emerge from my board.  He finds it fascinating that I cut off the “heads” and “tails” of the okra, and that the okra has several names such as bhindi and lady’s finger.  His excitement reminds me of how I always imagine chopped bhindi tails to be the fallen tails of house lizards that reside in practically every home in India.  I make a quick mental note that I must point out house lizards to Agastya when we next visit India.

It is very hard to find good bhindi here in the greater New York metropolitan area.  The Indian stores in Jersey City always carry okra, but they are frequently old, fibrous, hard, and nearly impossible to cook.  Another source is an organic store called Sobsey’s here in Hoboken that occasionally carries very fresh okra imported from Mexico.  And for a short while during the summer, local Jersey-grown okra makes an appearance in the farmers’ markets, and these are just the opposite of the ones in the Indian stores: they are a bright emerald green, glistening, thin, fresh, small and very tender.  While holding a basket of these delectable treasures, I will often have a quick daydream that someone has handed me a paper cone with crisply fried whole tiny green okra, tossed with a generous sprinkling of salt and red chilli powder.   Sometimes I am transported to a sleepy afternoon on the Greek island of Hydra where my husband and I stumbled upon a restaurant that brought us small whole okra cooked in a tomato and onion sauce.  Agastya had proceeded to eat the entire plate, savoring each bite.  We had watched on, relieved that our son had found something to satisfy his tummy.

The best way to enjoy okra’s natural rich earthy flavor is to simply cut fresh okra (washed and thoroughly dried) into 1/4″ inch rounds.  Heat a generous quantity of oil in a non-stick pan on medium heat, say about 3-4 tablespoons of oil for 2 pounds of okra, and throw in the chopped vegetable when the oil becomes hot.  There will be a sizzling sound as the okra hits the hot oil.  Cook uncovered, stirring every few minutes, until the okra browns, becomes soft and starts looking crisp at the edges.  This takes a little while, and it is important to not add any salt until the okra is done.  Covering the okra while cooking and adding salt both cause water to be released from the vegetable.  This hampers the cooking process, leaving the okra raw.  After the okra is cooked, add salt and a generous sprinkling of turmeric.  Cook for just a minute or two and the dish is ready to eat.  Note that okra shrinks down to an alarmingly small quantity after cooking.  For instance, 2 pounds of fresh uncooked okra will only serve 2 adults and one or two small children.

The Empty Kitchen







Stir-fried taro root (arbi) made by my mother-in-law


My kitchen feels oddly cold and empty.  Everything is in its place.  There is no mad confusion of spices, profusion of dry lentils and messy spread of vegetable peels on the countertop.

My mother-in-law has just left today for India, after almost three months of being here in Hoboken.  When my mother and mother-in-law are here, the stark white kitchen explodes into life and appears warm and welcoming.  All of a sudden there is stuff everywhere.  Spice jars are left open.  The smell of cooking fills the house, enters into crevices, and refuses to leave.  Both women use a variety of pots, pans, prep bowls and implements.  The kitchen appears to hum pleasantly with activity.  My mother-in-law chatters noisily with her sister on the phone while she cooks.  My mother starts innovating and tasting.  She tastes, adds, stirs and tastes again.  As though she is back in her eleventh grade science laboratory.

Both my mothers are excellent cooks.  When they come from India, both women take over the kitchen, coaxing delicious food from the electric stove.  They show no signs of laziness or fatigue when it comes to cooking.  My mother-in-law executes traditional Indian food flawlessly.  My mother I best remember for the interesting global food that makes an appearance in her cooking.  Quinoa starts showing up in our meals after three weeks in Peru.  I watch my mother pack in giant butter beans into her suitcase in Greece. Vegetarian risottos become a regular dinner-time feature after a week in Italy.  I’m not sure where the vegetable stir-fry with couscous that I love so much comes from.   In contrast I, before cooking anything, think about the commitment involved, the long hours, the possibility of grossly inedible food, the wasted effort, the cleaning, the disappointment.  Not cooking becomes a vicious cycle.  I don’t cook, then it gets harder each time I try to cook, and then I don’t feel like cooking the next time.

The kitchen seems to sense that I am an uneasy mistress.   It grows silent and sterile when my mothers leave.  It throws me sullen glances while I tiptoe outside.  It dares me to enter, and when I do, it makes something happen, like upsetting the jar of lentils so that there’s a giant mess and I start losing my sense of balance.  By the time I’m done picking up all the minute grains off the floors, I have lost my nerve and can’t possibly contemplate cooking dinner.  I scuttle away and plunk myself down on the sofa thinking about my limited food delivery choices.   I also think about how my mothers would have never allowed the kitchen to intimidate and bully them in any way.

So, a day later, I decide that I need to gently reintroduce myself to the kitchen.  Make friends again by starting with something simple.  Just a cup of tea, perhaps.  Tomorrow maybe I will try to make one dish from start to finish.


Sometimes my tiny toddler clambers into his dad’s lap at dinner time and proceeds to messily eat everything on the plate, small fingers moving busily from table to mouth, with a look of intense concentration on his face.  This, in spite of having finished his own dinner just an hour ago.  During such moments, I have an overwhelming sense that I must be doing something right.  My cooking has satisfied this small but very particular critic.  From the entire being-a-perfect-parent spectrum, I have decided that all I want to do is give my son two things, a lifelong love of learning and a love of good food.  As I watch him eating, still surprised that he can actually feed himself out of hunger, curiosity or whatever it may be, it seems to me that Agastya seems to especially relish the gobi or cauliflower stir-fry.   Can it really be that we both suddenly agree on what defines a good food?

The gobi dish has been arrived at after a long while of wondering what I can do with a cauliflower to make it edible, let alone make it taste like an authentic Indian sabji. It’s also meant getting over my fear of the cauliflower.  I have realized that just staring at the heads of cauliflower at the market and timidly considering possibilities will not do.  The first step is to bring home a bright white cauliflower with tightly packed florets, unwrap it and then ruthlessly remove all the greens and chop off a large piece of the stem near the head so that most of the florets are left with thinner, tender stems.  Discard all the green and white foliage over the counter before the mess threatens to overwhelm.  Then chop into bite-sized florets.  The satisfying abundance of cauliflower florets can now be put in a colander and washed.  The cooking possibilities then present themselves.  In the past, I have tried boiling the cauliflower in hot water, steaming the florets, even microwaving the entire head before stir frying, but all of these have tended to kill the flavor of the cauliflower.

Simply heating a few tablespoons of oil in a pan and covering and cooking the chopped cauliflower florets on medium heat until soft, stirring occasionally to ensure that the cauliflower doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, with a generous pinch of turmeric and salt, can yield a bland, but fairly tasty gobi dish.  The recipe can be be varied to add some grated ginger in the beginning, or long chopped onions cooked until they are brown, or even a green chilli or two, split down the middle, or any combination of the three. A sprinkling of coriander powder, cumin powder and amchur at the end adds another layer of flavor.  A raw medium-sized white or yellow potato with its peel, cut into thin slices and cooked with the cauliflower, adds a delicious rustic flavor to the dish.  Alternatively, a half cupful of green peas can be thrown in midway through the cooking to make gobi matar.