Palak = spinach
Paneer = fresh curd cheese
Can you remember the first time you tried Indian food? I suppose where you hung your school bag as a youngster would have had a major role in the matter. If you hail from the UK, homeland of India’s long time colonial masters, then perhaps it would have been pretty early on in the piece. Aside from fish and chips with mushy peas, cockles and mussels and freshly baked Yorkies, Brits like nothing more than sitting down to a fiery hot curry.
Aussies like myself oddly felt this sub-continental influence as well, however, it was by proxy – Bombay to London, then all the way back out to Sydney again – with migrating Pommies circa 1963. What about you Americans though? Or you vocal minority hailing from the Ivory Coast? Was eating an bog-ordinary curry once a week part of your early culinary rite of passage? Or was Indian food concealed with a veil of exotic mystique?
There was certainly no exotic friggin' mystique in my early encounters with Indian cuisine. Indian food in my house as a child was blandly singular – a monocuisine if you like. The entire sub continent of 1 billion diverse people was condensed into one single dish, and this was it; Meat, usually lamb, but on occasion beef (eek! Sacred cow!) was unceremoniously placed in a pot with a chopped onion, a big spoon of Keen’s curry powder (past its use by date, of course) and covered with water. This Satan’s brew was boiled until it no longer looked threatening – usually about 3 or 4 hours. It was then liberally seasoned with an ingredient that still to this day troubles and puzzles me – sultanas. If it was the weekend, or we had guests, a special side dish would be assembled - the oh-so-exotic slices of banana dipped in desiccated coconut. Up 'til my late teens, this was the full scope of Indian food as far as I was concerned.
At the age of 17, studying for my final school exams, a bunch of us decided to quit the library one warm evening and head out for some food. Sarah, the comely young thing that I lusted after at the time piped up;
“I know a great Indian take away around the corner”
I wasn’t too keen on eating any more boiled fruit and meat, but the allure and power of a 17 year old girl’s crystalline eyes is something not to be trifled with. We all nodded assent and headed to the curry joint. Well, boiled fruit with meat was nowhere to be found on the menu – nor were coconut dipped bananas. The dishes on the menu sounded as foreign as the aromas that assailed my senses. Rogan josh, vindaloo, murgh tandoori, saag aloo and of course – palak paneer.
The first thing that frightened me was the green. The palak paneer was greener than Kermit’s butt. The spinach was interspersed liberally with pale white cubes.
“Chicken?” I ventured.
“No silly…” Sarah delivered with a disheartening giggle, “…it’s Indian cheese – paneer.”
By now I was way out of my depth. I assessed the situation. In front of me was a lurid green bowl of spinach curry. And it didn’t even have any meat in it; it was curried goddamn cheese! Anywhere else I would have piked out and grabbed a burger on the way home, but it was that whole 17-year-old girl thing again - and those eyes... the eyes. I had 2 choices; dig in and eat, or turn and run.
It only took me 5 seconds to realise that I had made the right choice with the former. This was like no food I had ever tasted before. Complexly flavoured, seamlessly spiced and appropriately (not recklessly) hot. The spinach didn’t taste like spinach at all, it tasted of heaven, and the cheese was revelatory. Firm, tangy and perfectly matched to the rest of the dish - each cube fried to a golden hue. I was hooked. Of course, I never got the girl – but I thank her for opening my eyes to not only real Indian food, but also the concept of regionality.
“This dish comes from Punjab, in North West India” she said to my doe-eyed wonder.
India is not represented by one single dish, and not by hundreds either, but by millions of unique and complex dishes. It is a hallmark shared by all the great cuisines of the world; each region has an identifiable and proud legacy of unique recipes, and they represent the culture of the local people just as concisely as language, music, art and history do.
I have chased this dish like few others over the years; I order it just about every time I visit an Indian restaurant. I have eaten it dozens of times – sometimes good, sometimes woeful, but sadly all too rarely as good as that very first time. You might also find the dish presented as saag paneer. Hindi experts ought feel free to correct me here, but the way I see it, palak means spinach, whereas saag refers to any leafy green vegetable, but in the west, saag has over time come to mean simply spinach.
I was surprised to think back just recently that I have never made palak paneer at home. I have made paneer quite a few times – and it is amazingly easy to prepare, but as a local Indian market has started to sell locally made paneer, I thought I would buy a block and give the dish a try.
I couldn’t find a recipe in my books, so I hit google and was both pleased and disappointed. There were thousands of recipes, but after a good deal of time spent searching, I could find none that were even slightly better than average. In the end, I came up with my own recipe which is an amalgam of the better recipes I found on the web, and my memories of that night I spent years ago with Sarah.
Place the cumin seeds in a dry frypan and set over a low flame. Toast the seeds, shaking the pan occasionally, until they smell rich and fragrant. Do not let them burn or a bitter flavour will haunt the dish. Grind the seeds to a fine powder in an electric spice grinder, or a mortar and pestle. Alternatively, you could use ground cumin; just make sure that it is really fresh.
Place the garlic, ginger and chilli in a mortar and pestle. Remove the seeds and white membrane from the chilli if you prefer a milder dish, or if you are very heat sensitive, leave it out altogether. Grind these three into a smooth-ish paste. Not absolutely pureed, but almost there.
Heat a large pot of water to the boil and throw in a decent amount of salt (2 Tbs or so). Cut the roots from the spinach and discard. Separate and discard all the large stems from the spinach and discard as well. Place the leaves into a sink of cold water and wash well to remove any grit. Drain, then place into the boiling water. Cook for 60 seconds, then immediately drain the leaves and cool them under cold running water. This will provide the finished dish with its vibrant green colour, instead of dull grey. Place the cooled spinach in a food processor or blender and puree as finely as possible. You may need to add a little water to help this step along.
If you are using frozen spinach, defrost the package fully and puree in a food processor or blender as above. This stuff is already cooked, so you can omit the boiling step.
In a mid-sized saucepan, bring the ghee to a low - medium heat. Add the onion and the garlic/ginger mix and cook, stirring now and then for 5 to 6 minutes. Do not allow this mix to brown. Cook it nice and slowly and you will be rewarded with an allium sweetness on the plate. Add the garam masala, cumin and turmeric and cook for a further 5 minutes – still on a low-ish temperature. Add the tomatoes, stir and increase the heat slightly. Cook until the mix looks akin to a nice, rich tomato sauce. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Heat a frypan to medium heat. A non-stick pan is good here, because paneer has a tendency to stick when frying. Add the oil, then fry the cubes of paneer in a single layer until lightly golden, turning to make sure most of the cheese takes on a little colour. Remove the cheese and drain on a paper towel. Place the tomato mixture back on medium heat, then add the cheese and pureed spinach. Add a little water if need be – you want the consistency to be like a thick soup – no, make that a thin stew. You know – somewhere in the middle. Add a good amount of salt and bring just to the simmer. The longer the spinach is cooked at this stage, the more of its vibrant green colour will be lost – so don’t dawdle here.
Serve immediately, perhaps as I did – with some steaming basmati rice, a bowl of Charlie’s dhal, a pile of chapatis and some of gn0sis’ lovely cucumber raita, to which I added 1 tsp of freshly ground cumin for added oomph.