Yogurt and Panir Cheese Dishes
THIS COOKING CLASS, the last in a series on milk and its products, focuses on yogurt gravy (karhi) and dishes made with panir cheese.
In a previous column, I mentioned that the dairy products most widely used in a Vaisnava kitchen are plain milk, yogurt, and panir cheese. In rural India little has changed in the way these three forms of dairy are used. Traditional usage is strongest in village kitchens where refrigeration is still a rarity and cooking styles stay largely intact from generation to generation.
About Yogurt and Panir Cheese
Yogurt, to my mind, is the most amazing of any milk product. Yogurt is made with nothing more than quality milk and a culture. Unless you have a milk intolerance, you can probably easily digest yogurt in some form. Fresh yogurt is considered calming on the digestive system. Taken regularly, it is purported to help balance and restore healthy bacteria in the colon. And depending on how it is prepared, yogurt relieves either mild constipation or diarrhea. If you have ever lived in India, you know it is made daily in many households, twice a day in reputable yogurt shops, and considered stale if only a day old. Yogurt is an exciting ingredient for cooks a full-bodied creamy milk-curd, with a pleasing balance of sweet, sour, and astringent flavors.
Panir cheese is often called the Indian equivalent of Oriental tofu, but the flavors and textures of these two curds differ considerably. Panir's milk curd is creamy, with a mild, delicate flavor, while tofu's bean curd is gelatinous, with a flavor so bland it eludes description. The texture of panir is a little firmer than unripened farmer cheese, but panir cheese is unique in that it can be browned, sauteed, pan-fried and even baked without melting or disintegrating. In India panir still enjoys perhaps its greatest popularity in Punjab, where panir is served as an entree in a rich, succulent gravy, or in rices, stews, soups, legumes, and vegetable dishes.
I had my first sampling of Indian karhi (pronounced kah-ree) in 1966, when Srila Prabhupada cooked it for ISKCON's first wedding feast. The taste was so memorable that I noted the ingredients and have since reworked the original dish scores of times. Karhi is a custardlike gravy made by simmering varying proportions of yogurt, water, turmeric, chick-pea flour, and karhi (curry) leaves, when available, to yield a thick or thin texture. You can serve karhi as is, with chilies, chopped fresh cilantro, and fried spice seeds. Or you can add ingredients such as chick-pea fritters or seasonal vegetables. Karhi inspired its Western counterpart curry sauce, a bechamel sauce spiked with curry powder.
Fried panir might be added to any number of regional Indian dishes sak, sukta, bhaji, foogath, rasam, tarkari, and more. Many classic panir dishes such as Panir and Peas, Panir and Spinach, and Panir in Rice Pilaf are traditional at banquets and on holidays and other festive occasions. Indian restaurant menus are rarely without some variation of these dishes. But aside from the classics, a few panir cubes are a welcome addition to most pots of soup or beans.
Several times Srila Prabhupada requested ISKCON restaurant managers to include panir dishes on their menus, pointing out that it would satisfy the tastes of diners not accustomed to prasadam and pure vegetarian dishes.
Panir is a protein-rich food, one that marries well with the flavor of asafetida and fresh ginger-root and lends nutrition and distinction to many international dishes. Certainly it can be used in place of tofu in any dish. A few ways I've used panir in the last month include sprinkled on Italian foccacia and Arab khubz'arabee flat breads, layered in a Southwestern tortilla-bean-vegetable casserole, and with cabbage as a stuffing in baked Russian piroskis. You might use it in American-style veggie burgers and … well, you get the idea.
Refer to the class textbook, Lord Krishna's Cuisine, and look over the titles on the subject I've discussed here. Pick out your top choices and work them into menus in the coming months. Experiment using panir in your favorite dishes.
A Moment of Thanks from the Kitchen Window
Before taking time to read the recipes, reach for the class textbook, or make shopping lists, take a few moments to sit and simply be grateful. The more you taste the nectar of Krsna consciousness, the more you will spontaneously feel grateful on many levels. As a cook you will find many ways to savor Krsna consciousness.
Certainly be grateful to Srila Prabhupada, and reflect on how his instructions on devotional cooking and distribution of prasadam have changed the lives of hundreds of thousands around the world. If you have a spiritual master, be grateful for the instructions you have heard on devotional cooking. Deeply drink in those principles, relish them, and share them with others. By embracing these instructions, you will get the will, patience, and enthusiasm required at every step of your spiritual journey. And even if this column is your first taste of Krsna consciousness, be grateful you can see the words in this magazine. Sincerely chant the Hare Krsna maha-mantra, and try to do your best in offering your food to the Lord. Continue with your own list of things to be grateful for then get inspired and rattle those pots and pans!
Yamuna Devi is the author of the award-winning cookbooks Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking and Yamuna's Table. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and Vegetarian Times. Write to her in care ofBack to Godhead.
Master Recipe For Karhi
Use more or less water, yogurt, or chick-pea flour to adjust consistency. Use any single spice seed or spice-seed combination for the final fried seasoning. Use any one of the suggested additions below.
¼ cup sifted chick-pea flour
3 cups water
2 cups yogurt
1 teaspoon turmeric
½ tablespoon ground coriander
20 fresh curry leaves, if available
honey or sugar
freshly ground pepper or cayenne
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
½ tablespoon cumin and/or mustard seeds
2 tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter
hot crushed chilies or chopped hot green chilies
2-3 cups broccoli or cauliflower florets; shredded spinach; mixed bean sprouts; cubed yams or potatoes; sliced carrots or bell peppers; cooked chick peas or other legumes
Combine the flour, water, yogurt, turmeric, and coriander in a blender and process until well mixed. Pour the mixture into a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring constantly. Cook until thickened, anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. Season with salt, a touch of sweetener, and pepper or cayenne.
Place the spice seeds in a small pan and toast over moderate heat until they change color. Add the ghee or butter and the chilies and fry a little more. Pour the seasoning into the karhi and garnish with herbs or add an optional ingredient. Offer to Krsna.
Panir And Spinach
2 pounds fresh spinach, washed, trimmed and chopped
2 tablespoons ghee, unsalted butter or olive oil
¼-½ teaspoon crushed chilies
1 pound panir, cut in cubes and shallow-fried until brown
salt and pepper, as desired
½ cup sour cream, if desired
Place the spinach in a large pan, cover, and cook over moderately high heat until wilted (3-5 minutes). Add the remaining ingredients and warm throughout. If desired, fold in sour cream. Offer to Krsna.