If you’ve ever been to an Indian restaurant and ordered an entrée like sag panir, panir mutter, or curried vegetables you may have been inspired to try and recreate one of these tasty dishes at home for your family or friends. Of course, it’s do-able except for one minor detail: where do you buy fresh panir?

Most of the ingredients needed to cook Indian dishes, such as ghee, hing, chapatis, and nan, can be found in the Asian section of your local supermarket or the little import shops that specialize in Indian foods.

Panir, on the other hand, is rarely available for purchase and is best made fresh on the day that you plan to use it as is done in India, where people eat only fresh cheese. The practical reason for this preference is the historical lack of refrigeration in India, but also, in the Hindu scheme of things, foods that are not fresh such as the aged cheeses that we enjoy in the West are traditionally considered tamasic.

Panir is an integral part of traditional Indian cooking. It is a soft cheese made from fresh whole milk and is similar in taste to cottage cheese or the fresh mozzarella and ricotta made in Italy. It is very easy to make and well worth the trouble. Here’s how to do it.

To make one pound of panir, you will need:

One gallon of whole milk
1/2 cup of strained lemon juice (fresh or bottled)
Large pot or pan

1. Bring milk to a boil in a large pan. Stir constantly to prevent scorching. Reduce heat to low and stir in lemon juice. When the milk separates into cheese curds and yellowish whey, remove pan from the heat.

2. Line a colander with a triple thickness of cheesecloth 22 to 24 inches square, or a cotton pillowcase stretched over the mouth of the colander will do just as well. Using a slotted spoon, gently transfer the large pieces of panir to the colander, then slowly pour the smaller bits of panir and whey through it. Gather the corners of the cheesecloth or the pillowcase and tie the cheese into a tight bundle.

3. Rinse the bundle of curds with a slow stream of water to remove the lemon taste. Gently squeeze out the excess liquid and place the bundle on a slanted surface to let it drain into a sink or container.

4. When all liquid has drained, form the bundle into a flat, square parcel and place a flat weight on top of it, pressing the panir to drain it further, until it is firm and weighs about one pound. Let sit for 2 hours or, if possible, refrigerate overnight before using. You can now remove the cloth. Panir will keep 3 to 5 days in the refrigerator, and can be frozen for up to a month without affecting taste or texture.

Peas and Panir or Panir Mutter
Serves 4 – 6

Now that you’ve learned how to make panir, you’ll want to try it in one of those tasty Indian dishes we were discussing earlier.

1 pound fresh panir
ghee or vegetable oil for frying panir
1/2 teaspoon cumin seed
1/2 teaspoon mustard seed
1/2 teaspoon sesame seed
4-5 whole cloves
4-5 whole black peppercorns
1-2 inches cinnamon stick, broken into small pieces
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 pinch hing
2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro     (fresh coriander) leaves
1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon crumbled bay leaves (4-5 bay     leaves)
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne to taste (optional)
2-4 tablespoons tomato paste
1-2 teaspoons salt
1 16 ounce package frozen peas
1 cup of water
1-2 tablespoons sour cream or yogurt (optional)

1. Begin by frying the panir. Cut into 1/2 or 3/4 inch cubes. Heat a small quantity of ghee or oil in a non-stick frying pan. Add panir, and fry over moderate heat for about 5 minutes, turning the cubes with a fork or spatula until they are golden brown on all sides. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. In a small bowl, mix together the cumin seed, mustard seed, and sesame seed, and set aside.

3. In a small skillet, over medium heat, dry roast the whole cloves, peppercorns, and cinnamon stick for 5 to 8 minutes, until brown. Let cool slightly, and grind together. Set aside.

4. Heat together in a large saucepan or skillet the vegetable oil, hing and 1 teaspoon of the cumin, mustard and sesame seed mixture.

5. When seeds begin to pop, add the tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and garlic, and saute until the onion is transparent, stirring frequently.

6. Stir in the crumbled bay leaf, cumin powder, garam masala, turmeric, and cayenne (optional) and the ground, roasted spices set aside earlier.

7. Add the tomato paste, salt, frozen peas, and water. Simmer until the peas are cooked.

8. Stir in prepared panir and sour cream or yogurt and serve.

John Lenti serves as the produce manager at Earth Song Market, Ananda’s natural food grocery store and café in Nevada City, CA. John  has been an Ananda resident for over 20 years and has shared his enjoyment of cooking with fellow community members around the world.

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