A Beginner's Guide To Indian Cuisine: Paneer Makhani
Updated: Apr 12
Contrary to popular belief, Indian food is not just about curry, spice and chicken tikka masala. Each Indian state has its own unique style of cooking and makes dishes using different types of lentils, vegetables and meats. Additionally, due to India's long colonial history, various invaders such as the Aryans, the British and the Mughal dynasty have left their stamp behind on our cuisine. For example, when the Mughal dynasty came to India, they brought their rich, aromatic food culture and it is now an important part of the Indian culinary culture. They changed the country’s cooking by merging Middle Eastern cuisine with Indian spices and ingredients to give rise to one of the most distinct global cuisines. This cooking method includes lots of milk and cream with exotic spices, nuts and dried fruits to make it rich and spicy. Biryani, Korma and Pulav are some of the famous byproducts of this amalgamation of cultures. The culinary influences from various invaders is just one of the many reasons why different regions of India have different cuisines; the others include different climatic conditions and availability of natural produce.
Having lived in the United States for almost a year now, I have found that there is a general misconception when it comes to Indian food as people often think it is synonymous with palak paneer or butter chicken, however this is not the case. That is why I thought of starting the series 'A Beginner's Guide To Indian Cuisine,' to share some of my favorite recipes from the different regions of India and introduce the unique styles of cooking from the various Indian states to everyone here at NYU.
The first recipe in this series is Paneer Makhani (it literally means buttery cottage cheese). This Punjabi curry, also known as paneer butter masala, is a slightly sweet creamy dish where the gravy is prepared usually with butter (makhan), tomatoes, cashews or cream. Spices such as red chili powder and garam masala are also used to prepare this gravy. This dish originated in the 1950s when Punjabis at Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi invented the sauce by mixing fresh butter into a tomato-based curry. It is one of my favorite vegetarian curries and the recipe is super easy to follow.
Disclaimer: Since every state, every city and even every home has its own recipes for this dish, subtle differences in taste might occur. Having said that, this is my take on Paneer Makhani.
Course: Main Course
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Servings: 3 to 4
For Preparing Cashew Paste
18 to 20 whole cashews
⅓ cup hot water for soaking cashews
For Preparing Tomato Puree
2 cups diced tomatoes or 4 to 5 medium size-pureed
For Makhani gravy
2 tablespoons butter
1Indian bay leaf (Tej patta)
1 inch ginger and 3 to 4 garlic cloves - grind with a mortar and pestle
½ to 1 teaspoon kashmiri red chili powder - if using any other chili powder you can add ¼ to ½ teaspoon
1.5 cups water or add as desired
1 or 2 green chili - slit
200 to 250 grams paneer (cottage cheese) - cubed or diced
1 teaspoon dry fenugreek leaves (kasuri methi)- optional
½ to 1 teaspoon garam masala or tandoori masala
2 to 3 tablespoons low-fat cream or 1 to 2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream - optional
¼ to 1 teaspoon sugar - optional, add as required depending on the sourness of the tomatoes
salt as desired
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped coriander leaves (cilantro leaves) for garnishing - optional
1 tablespoon low fat cream 1 tablespoon heavy whipping cream - optional
1 to 2 teaspoons butter - optional
1. Soak 18 to 20 cashews in ⅓ cup hot water for 20 to 30 minutes.
2. When the cashews are soaking, you can prep the other ingredients like chopping tomatoes, chopping and preparing the ginger-garlic paste, slicing paneer etc.
3. Crush 1 inch ginger + 3 to 4 medium-sized garlic to a semi-fine or fine paste. Keep aside. Don’t add any water while crushing ginger and garlic.
4. After 20 to 30 minutes, drain the water and add the soaked cashews in a blender or grinder. Also, add 2 to 3 tablespoons water.
5. Grind to a smooth paste without any tiny bits or pieces of cashews.
6. Remove the cashew paste in a bowl and keep aside.
7. In the same blender add 2 cups of chopped tomatoes. No need to blanch the tomatoes before blending.
8. Blend to a smooth tomato puree. Keep aside. Don’t add water while blending the tomatoes.
9. Heat a large pan. Keep the flame to a low. Add 2 tablespoons butter in the pan. Both salted or unsalted butter can be used.
10. Add 1 medium-sized Indian bay leaf (Tej patta). Fry for 2 to 3 seconds or till the oil becomes fragrant from the aroma of the leaf.
11. Add the crushed ginger-garlic. Fry for a few seconds till the raw aroma of the ginger-garlic disappears.
12. Pour the tomato puree into the pan. The mixture will start simmering. Stir at regular intervals.
13. Now add the cashew paste. Sauté till the cashew paste is cooked and the oil starts to leave the sides of the mixture. It will take approximately 3 to 4 minutes on a low flame. In case the mixture splutters too much while cooking, cover the pan with a lid. Simmer the puree for 5 to 6 minutes.
14. Then add 1 teaspoon Kashmiri red chili powder. You can even add ½ teaspoon Kashmiri red chili powder or ¼ to ½ teaspoon of paprika or any other variety of red chili powder. Mix well and continue to stir and sauté the tomato puree till the butter starts leaving the sides of the pan and the entire tomato puree mixture comes together as a whole. This will take about 14 to 17 minutes on a medium flame.
15. Next add 1.5 cups water.
16. Mix the water very well with the tomato-cashew makhani masala. If there are lumps forming in the tomato-cashew masala, then mix with a whisk. Let the curry simmer and come to a boil. Stir occasionally.
17. After 2 to 3 mins, add ginger julienne (about 1-inch ginger – cut in julienne.)
18. Then after 3 to 4 minutes, add 1 or 2 slit green chillies.
19. Also add salt as per taste and ½ to 1 teaspoon sugar (optional). You can add sugar from ¼ tsp to 1 teaspoon or more depending on the sourness of the tomatoes. Sugar is optional and you can skip it too. If you add cream, then you will need to add less sugar. Mix very well and simmer for a minute.
20. Now add 1 teaspoon crushed kasuri methi leaves (dry fenugreek leaves) and 1 teaspoon garam masala in the gravy.
21. After the gravy thickens to your desired consistency, then add the paneer cubes (200 or 250 grams) to the gravy.
22. Next add 2 to 3 tablespoons of low-fat cream or 1 to 2 tablespoons of whipping cream.
23. Stir gently for a few minutes then switch off the flame.
24. Serve Paneer Makhani hot garnished with 1 to 2 tablespoons of chopped coriander leaves. You can also drizzle some cream or butter while serving. Enjoy!
Serve with flatbreads: You can serve this dish with roti, naan, tandoori roti, plain paratha or lachha paratha (layered flatbread).
Serve with rice: It also goes well with steamed basmati rice or jeera rice (cumin rice).
I served the Paneer Makhani with whole wheat naan and basmati rice.
Making A Vegan Version
Tofu: to make a vegan paneer makhani, replace paneer with tofu.
Vegan butter or oil: add a neutral-tasting oil or vegan butter and skip cream altogether.
Coconut cream: you can even use coconut cream, but with coconut cream, the flavors of coconut will be present in the dish.
Stay tuned for next article in the series: 'A Beginner's Guide to Indian Cuisine: Shahi Tukra'
*Garam Masala: The spices that go into garam masala are cumin, coriander, green and black cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, bay leaves, peppercorns, fennel, mace and dried chilies.
* Paneer: If you are non-vegetarian, you can swap the paneer for chicken or lamb.
*Addition of sugar depends upon your taste as well as the tanginess present in the tomatoes. Add more if required.