Two dining companions explore vegetarianism and India's neglected cuisine.
We were eating baked eggplant halves stuffed with vegetables, chickpeas, and deep-fried panir (fresh homemade cheese). "What's this?" my companion said when she came upon her first cube of the moist, brown-crusted panir.
"It's panir." Pause. "You've never had panir before?"
If she were a bus driver or a ballerina or a librarian, her answer wouldn't have surprised me. Even if she were a diplomat or dilettante. But she's not. She's been writing about food for twenty-four years. She's written a book reviewing 186 restaurants in her area, some of them Indian. She's met cooks from around the world and reviewed countless cookbooks her library takes up walls. Yet, somehow, panir the delicious, high-protein treat that turns up in everything from snacks to savories to sweets in Lord Krsna's cuisine has eluded her. And if her, then how many others?
"I think it's criminal that a person in your position and with your experience hasn't had panir before," I said. Cuisines of other countries like Greece, France, Italy, Japan are widely known. Why should India's be neglected? In India panir is as common as ice cream."
"But I don't see it in a negative way," she replied. "I see it as an adventure." And after tasting a little more "I'm beginning to see how you could live on a diet like this."
I inwardly dropped my fork, jumped on my chair with arms outstretched, and yelled "Hallelujah!" But outwardly I ignored my emotions and mumbled. "Finally."
"I think if you cut this panir into long strips and smoked it, it would taste just like bacon," she said.
Although the idea of eating baconlike panir didn't attract me, I thought of how meat-eaters could benefit from eating panir instead of meat. By eating panir instead of chicken, for instance, they wouldn't ingest salmonella, the disease-causing bacteria that infests a large percentage of that meat. They also wouldn't ingest the toxic chemicals found in many seafoods, or the carcinogens of red meats. In fact, through a sensible vegetarian diet they could alleviate problems caused by high cholesterol and obesity, and would naturally feel more energetic, resilient, and buoyant.
"I'm eating less and less red meat," my friend continued. "I'm not a violent person I don't like animal slaughter. And I accept the ecological arguments against meat-eating."
"You should tell your readers."
"I think they'll find out for themselves." she retorted, her green eyes casting a glance that made me feel my presumptuousness. "It's like AIDS. You can talk and talk about morality, but people will change only when their immorality starts to kill them. So, as people become more aware of how meat-eating is bad for their health, they'll start to give it up."
"But they need someone to show them how." I said. "It's like smoking. Everyone knows that smoking is bad for health, yet so many people still smoke. But when someone they look up to quits and explains 'Here's how I did it, and you can do it too' then they can follow."
"Look, we had a wine writer [at the newspaper where she works] who became allergic to wine. We can't have a food writer who becomes a vegetarian," she said.
"You have other food writers. Let them be nonvegetarian, and you be vegetarian. Variety is the mother of enjoyment."
"Oh, so you've got it all figured out."
"No. I'm ad-libbing," I said, feeling presumptuous again.
The discussion shifted to other topics and then returned to vegetarianism. I presented what is now common knowledge: "From whatever point of view you look at it ecology, ethics, economics, religion, health, aesthetics, altruism meat-eating is insupportable. People eat meal simply for the taste. And what's so significant about taste? It's about as significant as fashion."
"No, it's more significant. It comes from a lifetime of habit."
"OK, it's like an enduring fashion but it's bad fashion. Yet to convince even one person of that is so difficult."
"How did you become convinced?"
"There were many factors." I said, "but an important one was that the diet appealed to my logic and reason. And when I experienced how satisfying vegetarianism could be, I was convinced."
It was really Srila Prabhupada who inspired my conviction, because not only did he explain the spiritual importance of vegetarianism, he also gave the most satisfying vegetarian diet. Yet, as he pointed out, vegetarianism is not the end of the line. "The rabbits are vegetarian," Prabhupada said. "The monkeys are vegetarian. What is the great credit for being vegetarian?" So besides showing us how to he vegetarian, Prabhupada also showed us how to remember God, Krsna, while we prepare our food, offer it to Him, and eat it. And he showed us how to make hundreds of wonderful and here-to-fore unimagined dishes panir being one of the foremost.
(Recipes from The Hare Krishna Book of Vegetarian Cooking, by Adi-raja dasa)
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Yield: 11 ounces
8 cups whole milk
5 teaspoons lemon juice; or
2 teaspoons citric acid; or
5 ounces yogurt, diluted with milk; or
2 cups sour whey
1. Heat the milk over a medium flame in a pot large enough to allow the milk to rise without overflowing. While waiting for the milk to boil, prepare the curdling agent and get a strainer ready by lining it with two layers of cheesecloth and propping it above a receptacle to collect the whey.
2. When the milk begins to rise, stir in the curdling agent. Remove the pot from the heat. Almost immediately, the spongelike panir will separate from the clear, yellow-green whey with a kind of a magical suddenness. If the whey is not clear, put the pot over the flame again and add a little more curdling agent.
3. After the curds and the whey have separated completely, collect the curds in the cheesecloth. Rinse them under cold water for half a minute to make them firmer and to remove any excess curdling agent, which would alter the taste. Then press out the rest of the liquid in one of the following ways:
• If you want firm panir for making cheese cubes or kneading into a dough, bind the panir within the cheesecloth and press it with a weight for some time. The longer it is pressed, the firmer it will be. Remove the weight, cut the panir into the desired shapes, and use as required. Panir will also become firm if you suspend it in a piece of cheesecloth and leave it to drain.
• If you need soft cheese, simply tighten the cheesecloth around the panir and squeeze out the water.
(Bhari hui sabji)
Preparation time: 45-60 minutes
6 medium-large tomatoes; or
6 medium-small green bell peppers; or
6 medium-small eggplants
ghee (clarified butter) or vegetable oil for frying
3 tablespoons ghee
4 ounces pressed panir, crumbled
5 ounces cooked long-grained white rice
3 ounces lightly toasted cashew nuts, crushed
½ teaspoon asafetida
I teaspoon salt
½ cup sour cream
1. Wash and dry the tomatoes, then cut a "lid" off the top of each. Scoop out the pulp and force it through a strainer. Discard the seeds and save the pulp for use in the filling. Sprinkle some salt into the tomato shells and turn them upside-down to drain.
Do the same with the peppers, but discard the pulp. Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise and scoop out the pulp, leaving a thick shell. Chop the eggplant pulp into tiny pieces and fry them in a small quantity of ghee or oil until they are tender. Mash and use in the filling.
2. To prepare the filling, heat the ghee in a small saucepan over a medium flame. Crumble the panir, put it into the pan, and stir-fry it for a minute or two. Then add the cooked rice and all the other ingredients. Remove the pan from the heat, fold in the sour cream, and mix the ingredients well.
3. Stuff the filling into the hollowed vegetables. The filling will stuff 6 vegetables.
4. When you stuff the tomatoes or peppers, don't forget to replace their lids. You can make a paste from a tablespoon of flour and a dash of water to help the lids stick to the top.
5. Arrange the stuffed tomatoes or peppers (or both together) in an ovenproof dish. Add 4 tablespoons of water, cover, and bake in the oven Lit 300'F for 15 to 20 minutes. Eggplants take 10 minutes longer to cook, so cook them separately.
6. Instead of baking stuffed vegetables, you can steam them in a saucepan. If you have a metal steam-rack, you can steam them over boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes. If you don't have a steam-rack, heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil or ghee and fry the bottom of the stuffed vegetables for 2 to 3 minutes. Then add several tablespoons of water, cover the pan tightly, and cook for 15 to 20 minutes. For either method. make sure there is enough water at all times.
7. Sprinkle lemon juice over each serving. Offer to Krsna hot.
Deep-fried cheese balls in cream sauce
Preparation time: 30-40 min
1 lb panir
3 tablespoons white flour
1 fresh chili, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander or parsley leaves
4 teaspoons salt
ghee or vegetable oil for deep-frying
6 medium-size tomatoes
2 tablespoons grated coconut
2 fresh chilies, seeded and minced
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon asafetida
2 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil
2 cups sour cream
1 lemon or lime
1. Knead the panir vigorously until it is smooth and soft. Add the flour, chili, fresh coriander leaves, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Knead it again to blend the ingredients evenly. Break off pieces and roll them into walnut-sized balls. Heat the ghee or oil until almost smoking hot. Deep-fry the cheese balls for several minutes until they are golden-brown and crisp. Drain and set aside.
2. Blanch the tomatoes, peel them, and mash them to a puree. Then make a masala paste by grinding (or blending) together the coconut and all the spices except the remaining salt and coriander leaves. Heat the 2 tablespoons of ghee or oil in a medium-sized saucepan and fry this paste for about 1 minute. Now add the tomato puree, cream, coriander leaves, and remaining salt. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring often.
3. Put the kofta balls into the sauce 10 minutes before serving. Garnish each portion with a wedge of lemon or lime, and offer to Krsna.
Pan-fried seasoned cheese
(Tali hui panir)
Preparation time: 20 minutes
10 ounces panir
3 teaspoon turmeric
3 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ghee or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh coriander or parsley leaves
1 lemon or lime
1. Make panir and press with a weight for 10 minutes, so that the cheese is firm but quite moist. Cut the cheese into pieces about 4 inches long, 2 inches wide, and 1/2 to 1 inch thick.
2. Make a coating for the cheese by mixing the turmeric and salt in a small dish. Press the pieces of moist panir lightly into the mixture one by one to coat both sides. The coating should be thin and even. If the coating is thick, you'll not have enough mixture to go around. Heat a tablespoon of oil or ghee in a frying pan and put in as many pieces of panir as the frying pan will easily hold. Cook them slowly, about 4 or 5 minutes on each side, until they are lightly browned and have a thin crust.
3. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves and a slice of lemon or lime. Offer to Krsna.