There are endless reasons to travel the world, but one always stands out: food. Get Cultured takes you on a journey through cheesy dishes from different cultures (heyo), exploring how they came to be, what makes them significant, where you can find the real deal, and how you can make your own.
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Since I was a kid, I’ve been an ardent lover of creamed spinach. Whether it was in a plastic, divided container from Boston Market or a bone china dish at a fancy restaurant, it made the cut even back when vegetables were supposed to gross me out. I didn’t taste their Indian counterpart, though, until college—I learned, then, that I had been sorely missing out. Saag paneer is a warm, savory mix of finely chopped, soft spinach; spices; cream; and paneer, an Indian cheese.
To talk about saag paneer, we have to talk, first, about paneer. India’s widespread and creative consumption of dairy contrasts with the eating habits of much of the rest of Asia, where milk products tend to be hard to come by. In India, the prevalence of cattle—sacred in Hindu Indian culture—makes yogurt, cheese, and milk much more commonplace. Paneer, also known as chhana, is the star of the Indian cheese world.
An early form of paneer is said, by legend, to have been made accidentally in saddlebags during the Mongol Empire. As the nomads rode their horses from settlement to settlement with the desert sun beating down, the milk they were toting mingled with the rennet lining their rawhide bags, curdling into a sort of proto-paneer. These days, it’s strictly vegetarian—modern makers curdle the milk with lemon juice or other acids—but in the beginning, the story goes, rennet did the job. Despite these early origins, though, paneer didn’t make its way into Indian cuisine until the Mughal Empire.
If the saddlebags story doesn’t suit you, here’s another proposed origin story: Paneer may have entered Indian culture when the Portuguese introduced Calcutta to the technique. It is said that Portuguese settlers brought their knowledge of making fresh cheese, or queijos frescos, to the region around the 17th century, introducing India to the acid method of cheesemaking. Either way, it’s a good thing paneer found its footing somehow.
Paneer is far easier than most cheeses to make at home, akin to ricotta and queso fresco. It’s a fresh cheese, needing only a few hours at most to do its thing, where most need more time to ripen. It also only requires two ingredients—one might say that the only thing to paneer is paneer itself (sorry). To make the creamy cubes, milk is heated and an acid (often lemon juice or vinegar) is added, and the resulting curds and whey are separated. The curds are pressed, and there we have it: paneer that can be eaten fresh, cubed and fried, or mixed into any dish.
Now, back to the matter at hand: saag paneer. Around 2000 BCE, when the Ayurvedic cooking tradition found its legs, people likely prepared chopped mustard greens in earthen pots with yak’s milk. Saag in Hindi means “leafy greens,” which accounts for the combination of mustard greens, spinach, fenugreek, and other leaves in traditional saag, but, in its earliest form, mustard greens were the main event.
Palak, meaning spinach, drives the quite common variation palak paneer, so if the menu says palak instead of saag, you can expect to see only spinach among the cheese cubes. The difference between the two isn’t huge: saag is now typically made with spinach in addition to mustard greens. In the present day, heavy cream has replaced yak’s milk. When cubed, fried paneer enters the equation, the dish becomes saag paneer.
Roughly 30 percent of the Indian population adheres to a vegetarian diet, so saag paneer is not only delicious but also provides a delicious source of necessary protein to those who don’t eat meat. Saag paneer is commonly eaten as a side dish—perhaps with a plate of chicken or vegetable tikka masala or vindaloo—or alongside breads like naan or roti, often with a lassi to drink.
As for finding a delicious saag paneer in its native territory, a pretty foolproof option is Bade Bhai Ka Brothers Dhaba in Amritsar—one patron went so far as to label its paneer “divine,” which is pretty high praise. For a great saag paneer that might not require so many frequent flier miles, Punjabi Dhaba in Cambridge, Mass., is hailed by Zagat as one of Boston’s best Indian restaurants. On top of that, it’s inexpensive, quick, and colorfully decorated, and it looks out on Inman Square.