Ode to Paneer

Back home, it can be a bit annoying to stick to my chosen semi-vegetarian diet. I do eat poultry and fish. I don’t eat red meat. If people put up a stink about pork being white meat, I clarify: I don’t eat four-legged animals. (That doesn’t mean I do eat all two-legged animals. Fallacy much?)

Truly, I enjoy eating vegetarian food. Pretty much anything but mushrooms. All the better, as I find the sight of raw meat repulsive; I will only cook a dish with chicken or fish if someone else handles the meat. But sometimes… chicken is just delicious. The kind of meat that appeals to me is boneless and flavorful, more of a medium to convey a sauce or seasoning than an entrée of its own right. Fried? Yes please! Bathed in a creamy or curry-based sauce? OK!

And this brings us to India. A vast majority of the population here is vegetarian, and virtually all restaurants have distinct “veg” and “non-veg” menu offerings. Pushing this farther, there is zero beef and pork. Supposedly there is some lamb, but I have yet to encounter it. So if something is “non-veg?” No awkward questions about beans having hidden bacon or soups having beef stock. It’s just chicken. And that is amazing.

Unfortunately, however, this chicken usually has bones. I have always found it difficult and tedious to eat meat with bones, because it has an inconsistent texture – one minute you have a great bite, and the next you’ve got some nasty cartilage in your mouth that you have to awkwardly expel. I also dislike dark meat, and when you throw whole chunks of animal in there you’re bound to get some pretty dark and greasy pieces. In sum, it’s not worth it.

The glorious exception turns out to be fast food! Yes, half a world away in India, the American staples of McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, and even Taco Bell are alive and well. When they have chicken, it is boneless (except, presumably, some of KFC’s offerings). And it is delicious and plentiful. But best of all? The only meat at these places is chicken! And each of them – yes, even KFC – has an extensive menu of delicious vegetarian food!

Enter: paneer. It’s everything tofu ever dreamed of, but cheese! And since no rennet is needed to make it, it is always 100% vegetarian. The curry dishes that I love, made with chiles and butter and lentils and heavenly combinations of spicy flavors? Just add paneer. It is ubiquitous here, even in south India, where it is purportedly less common than up north.

Seriously, this stuff is the food of the Gods. You can cube it, slice it, fry it, mix it with sauce, put it in bread, and the list goes on. Do you know what McDonald’s does? They make a sandwich out of it that looks like a cross between the McChicken and the Filet-o-fish. And it tastes awesome. Pizza Hut puts it on their pizzas, in cubes, atop the more traditional mozzarella. Western world, are you listening?

Really, that’s the thing with paneer. It tastes good by itself, and it tastes even better if you do something to it. (That, and it is cheese.) I’ve had paneer many times before, always at Indian restaurants, and I knew I liked it. But here it is everywhere, and rightly so! Who needs a chicken dish with bones, greasy skin, and cartilage when you can have the same flavors with paneer? It kills me that you can’t even buy it in the US. The internet offers substitutes: cottage cheese, ricotta, extra firm tofu. All of those are tasty. But there’s tasty… and then there’s paneer.

If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go fry a slab of paneer and devour it.