Safed Paneer is a luxurious dish belonging to the royal cuisine of Rajasthan.
Rajasthan, the “land of kings” is an incredibly beautiful state in India. As the name implies, the land is rich in history of honor, wars and chivalry, dotted with majestic forts, monuments, palaces, and painted in stunning forms and colors. And along with royalty comes an equally rich heritage of mouth watering cuisine.
The “Safed” dishes, where mostly meat is cooked in a white sauce is a hallmark of the Rajasthani cuisine. The sauce is delicate and rich made with nuts, white poppy seeds and yogurt. Safed is white. So unlike the usual orangish hue of the curries, these dishes are different and set aside. It is not an everyday dish. It is treasured and honored just like the historic culture of this royal state.
When I was little, the name Rajasthan was a distant, exotic place I had dreamed of going some day. But you never know what surprises life holds for you. I was still in my teens when I first met A, and I was already entranced when I found out he belongs to Rajasthan! I was introduced to the cuisine after we got married and visited the land of royalty, the very first time for me.
As I drove down home with A, I was in rhapsody. I had my eyes glued to the window, as it went fleeting by the desert speckled with the warm and vivid colors of the dresses and turbans that the locals wear. Far away the Aravalli ranges faded into the horizon… It was a dream come true.
Gradually over the years, I have been introduced to the beautiful cuisine of this state through my family and extended relatives. The cuisine that is unique in so many ways. I am fortunate that everyone in the family is a fantastic cook and every time we visit, I am introduced to something I have never had before.
The first time, I had “Safed Maas“, meat cooked in this white sauce was when we had an enormous family get together in Jaipur and the food was catered. Then in these many years, I relished the varieties of food cooked in different homes. The Rajasthani Red Chicken Curry being one of them. The last time we were their, our aunt had made this Safed Paneer and the delectable flavor remained with us. A few days back when I was talking to her, I refreshed the recipe and went ahead and made it.
I am not sure if I can call it the authentic recipe, but it was close to the taste. Besides keeping the aesthetics of the flavors intact, every family has their nuances. Other northern states in India have similar recipes and they often go by the names of Mughlai Paneer or Paneer Pasanda.
Saafed Paneer: Indian Cheese Cooked in a Rich White Sauce
Ingredients: (Serves 4 as side)
- 2.5 cups (8 oz volume) Paneer, sliced in 1 inch cubes
- 1/2 cup ghee or oil
- 2 cups packed onion, thinly sliced in half moons
- 1/2 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- 1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
- 3/4 cup well drained yogurt + 1/4 cup sour cream (or 1 cup thick whole milk yogurt, well drained)
- 3-4 tablespoons white poppy seed/khus khus
- 3 tablespoons unroasted cashew nuts or almonds (skin removed) + some more for garnish
- 3 tablespoon fresh/frozen grated coconut
- 5 small green cardamom, seeds removed from inside and ground into a fine powder
- 4 cloves, ground to a fine powder
- 2 inch stick of cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon white pepper powder
- red chili powder (optional) – to taste
- 1/4 cup khoya/thickened milk – crumbled or grated/or milk powder (I have used heavy cream here) – the khoya or the thickened milk is optional, though using a couple of tablespoons of cream to finish off is recommended
- a few tablespoon of golden raisins, if you want a hint of sweet in the dish – optional
- salt to taste
Soak the cashews/almonds for a few hours. If you are using almonds and they still have the peels on, you will need to remove them. Soak the poppy seeds for a couple of hours.
If you are using store bought paneer: bring one cup of water to a boil. Switch off the heat, add half a teaspoon of salt and the paneer cubes. Cover and set aside for about 15 minutes.
Heat the oil/ghee in a heavy bottomed pan or wok. Add the cinnamon sticks and half the amount of the ground cardamom and cloves. Remove the pan from heat right away to prevent burning the spices. Now add the onions and cook them at low to medium heat. . After about 3-5 minutes of cooking the onions, add the minced garlic and ginger and cook everything together until the onions wilt, soften and reduce to about one third the original amount. Stir and toss them frequently and do not allow them to brown. It will take about 7-10 minutes.The sauce should remain as pure and white as possible.
Now whisk the yogurt (and sour cream if you are using). Drain the poppy seeds. Add poppy seeds, nuts, coconut, red chili powder to the yogurt. When the onions are cooked and reduced, remove the cinnamon sticks from the pan. Strain out onions from the oil (there should be a good amount of oil still left to use) from the onions and add it to the yogurt mix. Blend this mix until very smooth and creamy. Return this to the pan.
Strain out the water (save the water) from the paneer and add the paneer cubes to the pan. (if you are using homemade paneer, you should add the paneer towards the end of the cooking, as the homemade paneer is more delicate and will crumble with prolonged cooking and stirring). Toss gently for the sauce to coat the paneer pieces. Now add the rest of the clove and cardamon powder, white pepper powder and the khoya if you are using. Stir gently and simmer at low heat for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently and gently. If you think the sauce seems too thick for your taste, add a little warm (not hot) milk or the reserved water from the paneer.
Simmer until you see the ghee/oil rising to the top and lining the sides. By now the raw taste of the sauce should have been gone. If you are using heavy cream, add it towards the end of the cooking, when the dish is almost done. Add raisins, if using. Add the salt and adjust to taste. Simmer for another 3-5 minutes. Cover and switch off the heat.
When ready to serve, toss everything gently and garnish with nuts if you wish.
Serve with Naan, Roti or any flat – bread or any kind of bread or over rice.
Preparation Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 45 minutes
Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Serves: 4 as a side
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