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Proper P​aneer: Why this Indian cheese broke the internet during the US election

Is paneer tikka vs paneer tikka masala a recipe for disaster?

Judy Cogan posted in Indian
1w ago
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FoodTribe rarely weighs into any political debates waging on Twitter. But when Indian-American politician Pramila Jayapal posted a photo of a paneer tikka dish back in November, and it didn't so much as go viral, as shatter the Internet, we couldn't help but take notice.

We know FoodTribe founder James May loves paneer. And when we carried out a recent poll — asking whether you have tried paneer or not — 36% of you said you have not, but you'd like to: we take paneer seriously and believe you should too. But what made Pramila's paneer post gain heat quicker than a scotch bonnet thrown on a BBQ?

Congresswoman Pramila, the first Indian-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, made the dish and posted the results as a show of support for Democratic US vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris the night before the US election. Pramila tweeted she'd made “paneer tikka” in honour of the California senator, saying she'd noticed Kamala mention on Instagram that her favourite North Indian food was 'any kind of tikka'. Here's the very post itself.

Pramila shared a picture of some comfort food she made at home. What's the big deal? Well, the paneer tikka she shared did not go down well, at all, not one bit. Why? It had a thick gravy of onion and tomatoes with the paneer chunks (which we understand makes it paneer tikka masala, depending on what it was cooked in), whereas the original and authentic paneer tikka dish is supposed to be a dry dish without gravy.

Pramila was trolled by Indian foodies across the world, who called her out for wrongly identifying the recipe she'd made. With one person tweeting in reply: "Any self respecting North Indian will rather fast than eat this abomination" and another adding: "This is not paneer tikka, pls google it". But was the reaction fair? We'd love to know what you think.

The mistake was clarified later when Pramila shared the 'Paneer Tikka Masala' recipe she had followed and "slightly adapted" on Twitter, which came from Dr. Urvashi Pitre's healthy cooking website Two Sleevers ​and said: "you can either eat the tikka on its own, or add the masala (sauce) which is like a curry".

A bit of background on paneer

U​nsplash

U​nsplash

B​efore we get into the task of understanding the difference between paneer tikka and paneer tikka masala (is it more complicated than sauce, no sauce?) we'd like to share a bit more background on paneer, for those of you who haven't had the pleasure of tasting it yet. Seriously, what are you waiting for?

What exactly is paneer? It's soft, mild and fresh-tasting: it's a type of cheese that has been enjoyed in India for centuries and traditionally it's made with citrus juice and milk. You can marinate it, grill it, fry it, or pop it into soups or stews. Its porous texture means it's fantastic at soaking up flavour, making it the perfect way to create some mind-blowing dishes.

N​ow Apetina Paneer is on a mission to bring paneer into all our homes — taking on halloumi and tofu in 2021 to make it your go-to main ingredient to liven up veggie dishes and mid-week feasts at a time when people around the world are waking up to this amazingly versatile ingredient and noticing it's tasty as hell! And it's healthy too, fyi: it actually aids digestion.

F​irst up, here's the recipe that caused Pramila Jayapal so much strife on Twitter last month. Even after she posted the recipe and admitted her mistake in omitting "masala" from her original tweet, the trolls kept coming at her. Don't forget to let us know if you are inspired to make this recipe at home using Apetina Paneer, which, by the way, is available to buy in major supermarkets and local grocery shops.

In other news did you know paneer tikka has its own Wikipedia page? And it took two years for McDonald's India to develop a paneer fillet that was firm enough to be deep fried, yet creamy enough to stay true to its authentic texture?

What's so good about paneer and how is it used?

According to writer Sejal Sukhadwala on Lovefood.com, paneer has a starring role in popular Indian dishes such as pakoras, kebabs and Bengali sweetmeats, as well as taking the place of meat and fish in other western dishes from tacos to fajitas (look out for a paneer fajita recipe on FoodTribe).

The cream-coloured, unsalted cheese, historically made from buffalo milk (though a blend of this and cow’s milk is now the norm) is widely used in north India (such as Rishikesh below), Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Bangladesh and its mildness makes it perfect for absorbing stronger flavours.

Why does India have an indigenous cheese? Well, Sejal explains, the sub-continent has always had a strong tradition of dairy products due to a large number of cattle. Think ghee and lassi, for example. Milk is also at the top of the Ayurveda food hierarchy, and is highly valued for its soothing, serene and nutritious qualities.

N​orth India Unsplash

N​orth India Unsplash

W​e love paneer and value its tastiness and texture, but it's not for us to make a call on this debate. For an example of an authentic paneer tikka recipe, we turned to accomplished Indian chef Alfred Prasad, credited with elevating the reputation of British Indian food with his delicate treatment of fresh, seasonal produce. He was also the youngest Indian chef to receive a Michelin star at the age of 29, which he retained at his Mayfair restaurant Tamarind for 12 years.

Alfred Prasad was born in Wardha in central India and his father and mother both influenced his future career. In his father’s family, vegetarian cooking was important, and Alfred spent hours in his vegetable garden, tending to ingredients before bringing them to the dinner table. His mother had great skill in preparing meat and he joined her in the kitchen at every opportunity. Extensive travel around India with his parents also exposed him to the incredible breadth of Indian regional cuisine.

A​Alfred Prasad Official Facebook

A​Alfred Prasad Official Facebook

Alfred's paneer tikka recipe will be a hit with both vegetarians and meat eaters and is bursting with Indian flavour and spice. He says, ideally, the paneer should be cooked in a tandoor, but if you don't have access to one, a super hot grill will do the job nicely. Note: the difference between this recipe and the one Pramila followed is that this one does not involve a gravy/ masala, but we understand neither one is necessarily right or wrong — just different. But please correct us if we are wrong (nicely!).

And if you'd like to find out more about just how versatile paneer can be check out al the recipes on the Apetina Paneer website with tonnes of ideas on how to incorporate paneer into your weekly meals, from a simple paneer bowl to mixed vegetable gratin, stir fries and paneer butter chicken-style.

A​petina Paneer stir fry recipe

A​petina Paneer stir fry recipe

T​o clear up exactly what 'paneer tikka masala' is, we have shared a delicious recipe below from popular Indian food blog Cook with Manali,​ and there are two parts – the paneer tikka and the masala, which Manali Singh explains is the saucy curry part of it.

"This particular recipe I saw on TV a few years back while watching Masterchef India," says Manali on her blog. "I noted down the (paneer tikka masala) recipe but never got around making it, not until today. The recipe by Chef Vikas Khanna and Chef Kunal Kapoor was for chicken tikka masala but I made a vegetarian version of it."

Manali says she tweaked the recipe a little based on the availability of ingredients in her kitchen, which we're pretty sure Pramila did too, and the last time we checked this doesn't go against any foodie/ homecoming laws, but again correct us if we are wrong. Manali's tip for this recipe is: "If you want that bright orange colour you get in restaurants, you can add 1/2 teaspoon of paprika powder to the curry."

W​e know you love it when we throw a spanner in the works and just at a point that it has become clear Pramila is guilty of nothing but a typo/ missing word on Twitter (really, c'mon she should have known better! PAH!) we would like to introduce you to another authentically Indian dish called Kadai paneer.

While Paneer tikka is grilled or (preferably) cooked in a tandoor and served without curry sauce/ gravy and paneer tikka masala is paneer tikka but covered with an added sauce/ gravy: Kadai paneer is a semi dry curry made with paneer, onions, tomatoes, capsicum (green bell peppers) and freshly ground kadai masala.

K​adai is a tangy, spicy dish with a tomato and onion based gravy and like all the recipes above originates from and is widely eaten in North India. We have shared a recipe by cook Dassana Amit for Kadai paneer below. Be sure to let us know if you make any of these authentic recipes at home and in the meantime, be kind.

Dassana Amit/ vegrecipesofindia.com

Dassana Amit/ vegrecipesofindia.com

F​oodTribe paneer challenge

Why not make all four recipes at home for your family and create a fun taste test to see which you like best: saucy, dry, or grilled, and post the results on FoodTribe? Or let us know which is your favourite if you've already got one.

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