Mattar = Peas and Paneer = Cheese. Mattar paneer is peas and cheese in a spicy tomato sauce. It’s spicy in the sense that there’s a lot of spices used. I first tried mattar paneer nearly 30 years ago in an Indian restaurant in Philadelphia. Despite the humble ingredients, the flavor was unspeakably exotic for a country girl.
Asafetida is a dried and powdered resin that tastes like a combination of onion and garlic. If you come across it in a recipe you can substitute the same amount of onion powder and garlic powder. (If a recipe calls for a pinch of asafetida, use a pinch of onion powder and a pinch of garlic powder). Amchoor powder is derived from dehydrated mangoes and adds a sour taste to a dish. It’s usually added at the end of cooking. You can use lemon or lime juice as a substitute. Start with a half teaspoon and add more as desired.
Paneer is an Indian style cheese that is made from pressed curd. It is typically unsalted. To me, it tastes pretty close to a Mexican cheese called queso blanco. My town has a large enough Indo/Asian population to support a small store. It’s nice to have a source for paneer and numerous other ingredients. I’ve read, but haven’t tried, queso blanco makes an adequate substitute. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can make paneer at home with whole milk and lemon juice or white vinegar.
There are no longer any Indian restaurants in my town. There was one that attempted to appeal to the mainstream. I don’t know if the populace was intimidated by the exotic names of the dishes or if they heard the rumors that a vindaloo curry would set one’s teeth on fire, but they finally closed last year. It’s a shame because they had a really good lunch and weekend buffet where you had the opportunity to try the different dishes and learn what you liked and what you could skip on the next trip to the buffet. It was also one of the few places to buy vegetarian food that wasn’t an assortment of side dishes.
Fortunately, most Indian food is easy to prepare at home. As the cook you have control over how spicy the final dish will be. For example, a lot of recipes call for a green chile. I use a serrano, cut it in half and leave the seeds intact. If you want less heat, scrape the seeds out with a spoon. If you like hotter, dice that bad boy up. Keep in mind that you don’t want too much heat or you’ll overwhelm the flavor of the spices (and perhaps your guests!).
Another example of tailoring the recipe to your taste is Indian food is so flavorful it doesn’t suffer from the lack of garlic or onion in a dish as other cuisines might. If you don’t like them or can’t tolerate them, feel free to omit them. (There are Indians who don’t eat garlic and onions for spiritual reasons).
The recipe below is inspired by the one found on Manjula’s Kitchen. Please do take a look at her website if you are at all interested in Indian and/or Vegetarian food. Most of her recipes are accompanied by a video to aid in learning the techniques. She’s a very charming hostess.
I’ve said it before in other recipes, but it is espcially important for this one: Prepare all your ingredients in advance! One widely used technique in Indian cooking is tempering the cooking oil with the spices. The heat causes the spices to release their oils which in turn flavors the entire dish. The heat also means you’ll need to move quickly once the oil is hot. If it burns, you’ll have to start over. I measure mine onto a paper plate, keeping the spices that go into the oil separate from the ones for the tomato gravy.
For this batch I fried the paneer in a skillet while I made the gravy in a 12″ wok pan. (affiliate link) If I’d thought about it, I could have done everything in my large dutch oven. (affiliate link) Fry the paneer in the dutch oven, remove it and make the gravy in the same pan. Now I feel kind of silly for having to clean an extra pan. Oh well.
Such a flavorful dish and very easy to make. I hope you try it. Let me know how it goes!
- 16 oz. bag of frozen green peas
- 14 oz can crushed or pureed tomatoes (or fresh tomatoes put through the food processor to make about 2 cups)
- 12 oz package paneer
- 3 tablespoons oil, you’ll need about a teaspoon of this to fry the paneer
- 1/8 tsp onion powder
- 1/8 tsp garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 inch of cinnamon stick
- 1 tablespoon chopped ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1 green chile (serrano is fine), halved with or without seeds to taste
- 1 tablespoon coriander powder
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon chile powder
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon salt or adjust to taste
- Measure the spices for the oil: onion powder, garlic powder, cumin seeds, bay leaves and cinnamon
- On a different plate, measure spices for the tomato gravy: ginger, coriander, tumeric, chile powder and paprika. Aren’t the colors gorgeous? You’ll also want to prepare the chile, and measure the sugar and salt.
- Cube the paneer. (You can see from the photos I cut mine fairly large. I get 16 pieces from a slab of store bought paneer)
- Heat about a teaspoon of oil (from the 3 tablespoons oil) and fry the paneer until it’s a nice golden color on both sides. You don’t need much oil at all, just enough to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. Drain the paneer on paper towels.
- If you’re cooking the gravy in the same pan, wipe it out first (you don’t need to wash the pan). Add the remaining oil and heat until very hot. The surface will shimmer a little bit. Test the heat by adding a cumin seed to the oil If it cracks, add the rest of the cumin seeds, onion powder, garlic powder, bay leaves and cinnamon. Stir fry for 30 seconds or so.
- Add the tomatoes all at once. It will make a lot of noise. It’s very dramatic.
- Add the ginger, coriander, tumeric, chili powder, green chile, sugar and paprika (in other words, all that’s left but the salt). Give it a good stir, then reduce the heat to medium. Leave uncovered and let some of the water cook out of the tomatoes. It can take seven or eight minutes or longer, depending on the water content in the tomatoes. Keep an eye on it and stir occasionally.
- If you’re planning to serve the mattar paneer over rice, go ahead and start it now while you’re waiting for the tomato gravy to cook down.
- When the tomatoes have thickened slightly, stir in the peas and cover the pan. It’s ok to add about a quarter cup of water if you think the gravy has gotten too thick. Let simmer until the peas are tender.
- When the peas are nearly done, taste the gravy and add the salt to your taste. Then add the paneer back to the pan.
- If your gravy is “loose” you can thicken it with a cornstarch/water slurry. Mix 1 tablespoon corn starch with 3 tablespoons water in a small bowl and then add to the gravy. Stir well and let the heat thicken it. If you use canned tomatoes, you may not need to do this.
- Don’t forget to check the rice.
- Turn the heat down to low and let simmer quietly until the rice is finished cooking.
Serve over rice with some Indian style flatbread (called naan) to sop up the gravy. If you can find a store that sells paneer, they will most likely sell naan as well.