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Paneer, cottage cheese, chaman, chhena, the home-made white cheese with many names, appears to have always been a part of Indian cuisine. Its origins, however, are the subject of some debate. There are references to a form of paneer in early Vedic literature, but if some culinary historians are to be believed, the making of paneer, or the process of acidulation of milk to yield cheese, was a gift of the Portuguese. Still others credit the popularity of the soft white cheese in India to Persian and Middle Eastern influences. Then again, paneer also shares many similarities with bean curd or tofu, which is so popular in South East Asian cooking. Wherever or however it originated, paneer has in recent times assumed the status of a delicious, nutritious alternative to non-vegetarian food. Packed as it is with protein and all the goodness of milk, vegetarians have found that paneer is the perfect substitute for meat and poultry in almost any dish. Thus we have Paneer Tikka Masala, Paneer Koliwada, Malvani Paneer Masala and Paneer Satay. While paneer features in nearly all regional Indian cuisines, the Bengalis seem to know more than a thing or two about this versatile milk product.

They have mastered the art of making soft silky chhena, which they knead lovingly into the most delicious sweet confections– sandesh, rasmalai, chumchums and rosogollas to name a few. However, novices in the kitchen need not feel inhibited. There is a reason why the English name for paneer is “cottage cheeseâ€: it is the simplest cheese to make at home. Unlike other cheeses, it needs no special equipment or complicated technique. Lemon juice, vinegar or a cup of whey, a piece of muslin and a strainer–everyday kitchen stuff is all that one needs to turn out delicious paneer in a matter of minutes.

Here is a recipe for making paneer:

1 Bring one litre of milk to a boil. Immediately add two tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar and continue to boil, stirring continuously, till the milk curdles and separates from the whey.

2 Drain and tie the curds up in a piece of muslin. Dip the “potli†in chilled water so that it cools down completely. Squeeze out the water again.

3 Place the paneer under a heavy weight so that all the water drains away and the paneer sets in a block.

4 For malai paneer, use full cream milk and follow the same procedure.

Here are some tips on making and using paneer:

  • Do not discard the whey: you can use it to make paneer the next time.
  • The whey can also be used to knead chapatti dough.
  • Milk which is split with lemon juice or vinegar will produce a firmer curd, while that split with whey will produce a softer crumbly curd.
  • To keep paneer fresh for 2-3 days,immerse the paneer in water to cover and refrigerate. Refresh the water every 8 hours.
  • To prepare paneer for sweets, place it under a weight for not more than 10 minutes to retain some of its moisture. Alternatively squeeze the “potli†well to remove as much whey as possible.
  • Sprinkle a little water over a dry paneer dish while reheating, to prevent the paneer from becoming hard and rubbery.
  • As far as possible, add the paneer towards the end of cooking.

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