I must have been about nine or ten years old when I first ate something called, Shahi Paneer in a gourmet restaurant in Delhi. It was on one of our annual family summer holidays, although the idea of visiting the golden triangle—Delhi, Agra, Jaipur—during a hot arid season is something I haven't been able to fathom till date! My father had a reputed government job that kept him busy throughout the year, and irrespective of how hot the weather was, he would leave no stone upturned to take us out of the city during our longest school vacations. Without diverging more, let me get back to Shahi Paneer. As the server brought the sizzling silky gravy to our table, I promptly asked, "Why is it called shahi (meaning royal)?" While the server and then the manager cajoled me and tried their best to justify the name of the dish, nothing seemed satisfactory to my curious mind that was on tenterhooks reading all the other dishes parked under Mughlai cuisine on the menu. It took me many years to unravel the mystery of Shahi Paneer.
In an interview with Sierra magazine, famous American author and journalist, Michael Pollan says, "At home I serve the kind of food I know the story behind" as he expounds upon the importance of knowing where our food is sourced from when we eat it at our tables. While this conversation explores the slow food movement emphasizing the importance of local buying and supporting polyculture, it sets me on a parallel trail of understanding the history behind the food we eat. This brings me to what acclaimed food and travel writer, Madhur Jaffery writes in her book, Vegetarian India, a thought I instantly connected with, a notion that's more than a reverie for me:
Food, as we know does not exist in vacuum. I always like to know the background of the dishes I eat.
When you dine in a restaurant that serves North Indian food, you're likely to be presented with a menu offering myriad of paneer dishes. Paneer, inaccurately assumed as the sole resort for specialty dishes for the vegetarian audience, is cooked in different gravies and brought to your plate as Paneer Makhani, Paneer Butter Masala, Paneer Qorma, Peshawari Paneer, Paneer Lababdar, Paneer Pasanda, Paneer Tikka Masala, Kadai Paneer and my husband's favourite, Shahi Paneer. I have perhaps left out more avatars of paneer because the list is extensive in the paneer directory. In an Indian restaurant outside India, you may not always find such a substantial paneer menu. Irrespective of whether you're in India or outside, most of these restaurant paneer gravies taste similar because they're often assumed to be analogous. Considering that the gravy of each of these varieties of paneer are one of the four standard bases—tomato, onion, nuts, dairy—or a combination, the change of spices and cooking technique actually lend each gravy its character which is hard to guess unless the dish has been done well.
If you're ever caught in a quandary at a restaurant on how to choose from this variety of paneer, try understanding the name of the dish. While the names of most paneer dishes bear an inkling of what their gravy is made of (butter masala has butter, makhani typically has white butter, tikka masala has marinated and grilled paneer) or where they come from (Peshawari indicates the dish originated in Peshawar, Kolhapuri hints it has Kolhapuri style masala), many christenings leave me surprised. Consider Paneer Pasanda which has long strips of paneer. Pasanda is originally a gravy made of long strips of meat but I've hardly seen a menu at a restaurant explaining it. Paneer Lababdar does not ring a bell on its ingredients too. The word lababdar isn't found in the Hindi dictionary and sources indicate it has Urdu or Arabic origins, and the word is loosely described as having a strong desire for indulgence. Owing to its Urdu and Arabic roots, Paneer Lababdar is believed to hail from the Mughal cuisine known for the grandeur and swank of its badhshahs or emperors.
Shahi, a Farsi word used in the Hindi language, means something that belongs to a badshah (emperor) or something that's regal. Both names, Shahi Paneer and Paneer Lababdar strongly draw upon royalty, a quintessential characteristic of the Mughal empire, more prominent during the reign of Shah Jahan who established Shahjahanabad (old Delhi)—the linchpin of Islamic architecture, bazaars, street food and shahi khana (royal food).
The iconic Farsi manuscript, Nuskha-i-Shahjahani (Shah Jahan's recipes), also translated to English by the scholar Salma Husain, has detailed recipes from the royal kitchens. Other historical texts like Ain-i-Akbari which details the administration of emperor Akbar and Alwan-e-Nemat, a collection of recipes from emperor Jahangir's rule, also mention Mughlai food. Strangely, none of these artifacts broach Shahi Paneer or Paneer Lababdar which are laid on as gleaned from Mughlai cuisine—a harmonious amalgamation of Afghan, Persian and Hindustani cooking styles. Although commercially prevalent in India and abroad, Mughlai food is grossly distorted everywhere, presented as fat-laden ultra-spiced rich gravies in the wake of being shahi, lazeez and lababdar, all implying royalty in some way.
To understand why dishes like Shahi Paneer and its kin are prepared as thick oily gravies in restaurants and conveniently labelled as resplendent, it's important to delve more. When Shah Jahan shifted the capital of the Mughal empire from Agra to Delhi, the water of the Yamuna river was found to be inedible. The emperor's health advisor or hakim recommended cooking meat with more spices to counter the harmful effects of the water and the use of ghee to negate the effect of extra spices. Most, if not all, paneer dishes embraced in the Mughlai food bracket seem to take the idea from original meat dishes. While the sophistication of cooking meat in Mughal kitchens was resonant of nifty techniques that involved multiple and patient layering of selected spices, straining of stock and careful scenting and seasoning, it was nevertheless a time consuming process. When modern kitchens in restaurants embarked upon replicating the flavour base of meaty dishes into vegetables and paneer to cater vegetarian audiences, the notions, 'fat is flavour' and 'masala is king' ruled the roost. Slow cooking methods were modified and often replaced to suit batch-cooking for customers, producing standard pre-made gravies identified by their colour—red, white or yellow—and not by their cooking procedures or ingredients. That's how most people identify gravies in a restaurant: qorma is white, butter masala is yellow, tikka masla is red, lababdar is orange, and more of such blarney. While I understand that it's impossible to slow roast and cook the masala at length in a restaurant as a number of people are kept waiting for food to arrive at their tables, a lack of explanation of a dish (at least on the menu) compromises the very bones of its identity that ultimately gets lost over time.
Gravies like Shahi Paneer bearing the insignia of Mughal cuisine, associate royalty with the use of nuts, saffron, yogurt, milk and cream in them. A typical Shahi Paneer recipe would involve cashews, or sometimes almonds. Some would douse it in cream for the texture while some will add milk or yogurt while others will add everything to claim and defend its aristocratic heritage. It's hard to make an unerring declaration on which method is correct because Shahi Paneer seems to be a dish that was most likely created and modified over generations trying to reproduce qormas (braising of meat in ghee, yogurt and spices) and qaliyas (slow cooking meat with spices into which vegetables were added sometimes) in the period when the Mughal dynasty was declining and British colonialism was peaking, and every Indian gravy was docketed with the word, "curry".
Many of the elements in the nominal royal gravies have borrowed and adapted foreign ingredients. Cashews arrived in India between 1560-65 with the Portuguese who brought it from Brazil, while Persians introduced almonds. Paneer which is made by splitting milk using a souring agent like lime or vinegar has mingled origins: one line of thought shows clear evidence that the concept of curdling milk and making chena was taught by Portuguese to Indians in the 17th century in Calcutta while the other dates the history of this curdled milk mass to Central Asia. Theories also claim that Afghans and Persians, the predecessors of the Mughals in India, introduced the close cousin of paneer, 'peynir' in the 16th century. Considering that the Mughal era lasted in India between 16th and 19th centuries, 1526-1857, and that the Portuguese, Afghan and Persian influences also pirouette this timeline, they collaboratively have contributed to Shahi Paneer, a dish that touches upon the remnants of Mughal cooking styles in a strive to replicate nostalgia.
What about this Shahi Paneer recipe?
Although I learned about Shahi Paneer in a restaurant first, I have refined my recipe over the years to yield a more homely feel. Unlike the restaurants, I make my masala pastes fresh and use it the same day, unless I am hosting a party at home and want to save time by making a pre-made gravy base.
To yield the silky texture in the gravy, I recommend making two separate but extremely fine pastes, first with onion and tomatoes, and second with cashews and yogurt.
I make a paste of onions and tomatoes and then let it cook slowly with the ginger, garlic and whole and dry spices using the bhuno cooking technique that involves slowly building the flavour of the ingredients by frying over low to medium heat.
To slow roast a masala, always use a heavy bottom pan that will ensure that your masala doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.
Using milk or yogurt in a recipe involves a bit of skill but I have a trick for you that will go a long way! Always beat the yogurt or curd well before adding into your gravy, and keep the heat of the stove low when you do so. Otherwise, the milk or yogurt will curdle. Once you add milk or yogurt, remember your cooking process will slow down. So, I recommend adding it towards the end when the gravy is almost done. The second trick is to constantly stir the gravy as you add the yogurt or milk in small doses.
As I researched Mughlai cuisine more, I realized the use of turmeric was almost negligible in the imperial kitchens except in qaliya. Saffron was more popular, and I borrowed the elements of both qorma and qaliya in this recipe. You're free to opt turmeric over saffron.
The gravies in a restaurant have a silk smooth feel to them as they are strained to remove the fibers. You can do it if you wish, although I prefer not to do it. I make a very fine paste of the onion and tomatoes which ensures a beautiful texture in my gravies, and sometimes use a hand blender to further grind any remaining fibers in the gravy towards the end of the cooking process. Trust me, I have made this on several occasions, and friends and guests have requested it to be made multiple times!
Although not greasy like a restaurant version, I still find this gravy on the richer side of the culinary pallet. I highly recommend this recipe for a party or for a day when you want to enjoy one profuse dish.
700 gm paneer cut into cubes
2 large onions roughly diced
3 large tomatoes roughly diced
1 tbsp oil
1 tbsp ghee (or use 2 tbsp oil instead)
1/4 tsp caraway seeds or Shah Jeera (use cumin as substitute)
1 cinnamon stick
1-2 bay leaves
1 black cardamom
2 green cardamom
1 inch ginger minced
3-4 cloves garlic minced
1 tsp coriander powder
2 tsp red chili powder (Kashmiri preferably)
1/4 tsp turmeric
2 tbsp yogurt
1/4 tsp Garam Masala
Few strands of saffron
Pinch of green cardamom powder
Pinch of cinnamon powder
1 tbsp Kasoori Methi
Salt to taste
Make a fine paste of the onions and tomatoes in a blender and keep it aside.
(Optional) Heat a heavy bottom pan or wok. Wrap the saffron strands in a piece of aluminium foil and toss it on a fry the pan by pressing with your fingers or a spoon for a couple of seconds. Keep it aside.
In the same pan or wok, heat oil and ghee, and add the whole spices, caraway seeds, cinnamon stick, bay leaves, cloves and cardamom.
Once everything is fragrant, add the ginger and garlic and sauté on medium heat so as not to burn them but let their raw smell disappear.
Add the onion tomato paste and sauté for a couple of minutes on medium heat. Now, lower the heat and begin the bhuno process.
Keep frying the masala on low to medium heat, and gradually add turmeric, red chili and coriander. Continue slow cooking the masala. You can close the lid of the pan for about 5 to 10 minutes to let the masala cook completely. Open in between to check the doneness.
Meanwhile, make a paste of the cashews and the yogurt in a blender. Beat garam masala with a pinch of salt to this mixture using a hand whisk. You should get a flowing but creamy mixture.
(Optional) Open the foil and add the slightly toasted saffron strands to the beaten yogurt and cashew mixture.
Check your masala being cooked slowly. After about 20 minutes or so, the oil from the masala should start separating lending it a good hue of red. Add salt and cook for about 10 more minutes.
Lower the heat to a minimum and pour the yogurt mixture into the gravy in adding small amounts in each pour and continuously stirring as you do.
(Optional) Use a hand blender to further refine the texture of the gravy.
Mix well and let it simmer for a few seconds, and then add the paneer. Don't stir the gravy too much after adding the paneer or they will break.
Drizzle pinches of cardamom and cinnamon powder on the slowly simmering gravy. Switch off the heat after 5 to 7 minutes. Rub the Kasoori Methi between your palms and add it on top, and cover the pan for a few minutes. Let the gravy settle a bit before serving!
You will truly love this fragrant sweet tangy gravy with hints of cardamom and cinnamon on top wafting away in your kitchen! Scoop the pillow soft paneer with any kind of bread or stir up a pot of rice tempered with cumin to make jeera rice on the side! Either way, you're bound to fall in love with this modernized version of a gravy made in the Mughal bawarchi khanas of the royal families. Don't forget to have some salad ready to accompany and make this meal wholesome.