The most-in demand dish in the family: matar paneer. How much more North Indian can one get!
By Shalini Kala
Growing up in the north of India I could never understand the fuss about matar paneer – sweet peas with Indian style cottage cheese. From now on we call it matar paneer. That English translation is a little cheesy – and so is this, ha!
First of all, fresh, sweet peas were not my favourite. Remember alu matar aur bahot saare matar? Every time I heard that jingle, my juvenile mind cringed wondering WHAT was that and WHY? WHO would want to eat more matar over alu?
Until one day on a trekking trip from Mussorie to Chakrata with a bunch of fifteen year-olds, tired and hungry, I found myself in a small patch of sweet peas farm. It is not that we had never seen any eatable grow naturally – our ground floor city apartment came with a backyard which had a guava tree. We were found more on the tree than inside the house, trying the tensile strength of its branches like carefree monkeys.
Mum also grew some vegetables/herbs in that tiniest of patches. But this was different. We were in the middle of a real farm. Many of us didn’t know what rural meant. The farthest one had experienced it was during visits to the little islands in Delhi where dads would go to get milk from the dhoodwala who reared cows and buffalows. I knew a little better, since my parents were migrants to the city and much attached to their Himlayan homes that we got to visit frequently.
That combination of fearless and ignorant curiosity, added to hunger – we were always hungry but at this time particularly so because of strenuous trekking – led to a furious raid on the peas farm. I plucked a pod and opened it carelessly to get the peas out and flick them in my mouth more to check the hunger pangs and to while away time than devour them with any enjoyment. And then I stood petrified with only my mouth moving in chewing action. Enlightenment had struck! I instantly knew what …bohot saare matar was about. Outrun with the collective plucking, opening and eating expertise of our group, the farm started to look bare in a matter of minutes. It stared back at us, totally and utterly beaten. I didn’t know something at that time.
The Revenge Of The Farm
The farm took its revenge. That raid is why I am cursed, unable to enjoy any peas but the best – tender, fresh and sweet. Frozen ones don’t exist for me. Many vegetables are becoming available almost around the year, but I still have to wait for the season to enjoy peas in any preparation. Others at home are very matar- oriented people and will hunt for it all through the year, encouraging me to cook with frozen ones too – sacrilege!! During such times I cook but quite listlessly pondering on the waste of effort.
The most-in demand dish in the family is matar paneer – how much more north Indian can one get! With freshest of peas one needn’t bother much with prep and masala to make this good-looking item – that is also something I like about it apart from the fact that it is soul-nurturing. I would also recommend full-fat paneer. Slim milk paneer is not much better than rubber and why would you cook rubber? Like many other fellow pioneers I too have tried chewing rubber and intuitively know that cooking might not make it edible in any way. Moreover, I am told that the nutrition value of rubber is nil, so why bother going that path? If that is new information for all of you out there – you are welcome! Finally, cook this one in ghee for best results.
No cream, no curd, no milk, no nut powder, no garam masala
1 table spoon of ghee
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
A generous pinch of asafoetida
500 gms shelled fresh sweet peas (if you must use them frozen, one can only sympathize!)
300 gms full-fat paneer
4-5 fat garlic pods
2 medium or 1 large onion
2 teaspoon heaped grated ginger – it doesn’t have to be grated as it will be ground with the rest of the masala
2 large or 3 medium ripe red tomatoes – the redness will make this the good looking item I mentioned elsewhere
1-3 green chillies depending on the strength of the chillies and your tolerance of them
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1-2 teaspoon coarsely ground coriander powder
Salt to taste
2 glass or thereabouts of water, this is a thin gravy dish
Fresh coriander to garnish – this is the cherry that the cake tastes very well without it too.
Roughly chop onions, garlic, ginger and green chillies. Grind to a paste, don’t overdo, a slightly chunky paste is better than liquefied masala. Heat ghee in a pressure cooker. Once hot, slide the bay-leaf in, splutter cumin, and add asafoetida. Follow quickly with the ground masala mix. Lower heat to medium-low, fry the masala till it becomes soft and pinkish.
Puree tomatoes. Again, a chunky puree is better than the watery mass. Add this to the cooked masala followed by turmeric powder, coriander powder and salt. At this point if you wish, add red chilli powder for the extra kick and redness; I don’t. Mix well and let this cook on low heat till you see the ghee separating. Add peas. Mix well with the masala on high heat for about a minute or so. Add water. Mix. Shut the pressure cooker. At the first whistle reduce heat to very low, lowest possible. Cook for 8-10 minutes for fresh tender peas. For any other kind it will take about 20 minutes. Take off the heat and open the cooker only once the steam is fully released without any external pottering with the whistle. Don’t hurry, this is part of the cooking process. Meanwhile, cut paneer into square or rectangular pieces, as you please. Sit and enjoy a drink or the setting sun or both.
Put the cooker back on heat, mix and check if the peas have softened. If they are even half decent, they should have, oozing out a sweet aroma. Check the thickness of the gravy. If you want, add more water at this point. Taste to adjust salt. As soon as this comes to a boil, add paneer pieces and mix. Let it come back to a boil and again reduce heat to the lowest.
Cook for two minutes or less. Paneer would have softened. If not, go back and look for what I said about full-fat paneer; don’t kill yourself if you missed that detail. Throw the paneer/rubber out and just enjoy the peas curry! Serve hot with a garnish of fresh coriander if you wish; my guests have never noticed its absence. In all probability you won’t have leftovers. If you do, reheat gently to retain paneer’s form and soft consistency.
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Shalini learnt to enjoy cooking at a mature age by which time she had gained many other experiences particularly through her work in agriculture and rural development. Her writing is an attempt to mix lessons from her cooking experiments with those from life in general.