Last night I went to an Indian restaurant called “Karma” after work for a late night bite to eat. For some reason I was craving Indian food, the curries, gravies, naan bread brushed with melted butter, and so forth. I ended up ordering a “paneer” dish which had a tomato-based sauce with sautéed small, purple onions and green peppers infused with several spices that made my spirit rise, as is the case when I eat Indian food in this country for some reason. In Boston it doesn’t taste the same, rather bland despite eating very similar dishes. The meal I ordered was with paneer, which is considered a cheese and has the consistency of a dense, strained cottage cheese, but cut into bite-size cubes like tofu. The Hindi word paneer is strikingly similar to the Armenian word for cheese, “banir,” and there are other similar words that I can’t remember now. It makes sense I suppose because both languages are Indo-European and there are clear cross-cultural similarities as I have learned just by mingling with Indians living here. But I wanted to understand the true roots of the word. Here’s what I found out:
Paneer (sometimes spelled Panir or Paner), is the Persian word for “cheese”. It is an unaged, acid-set, Farmer cheese that is similar to Queso blanco except that it does not have salt added, and to acid-set fresh Mozzarella. Like Mozzarella, Bengali paneer is beaten or kneaded. However, other types of paneer are simply pressed. Paneer is the only type of cheese indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, and is most commonly used in Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisine. Paneer is a primary source of protein for Buddhists (typically those of South Asian origin).
Source: Global Oneness
So it is not even a Hindi word, it is from Farsi. Very interesting. Which means banir is undoubtedly comes from the Farsi, unless of course the Persians adapted the Armenian word into their own language. A mystery that cannot be solved here, unfortunately, since I am not a linguist.
According to Wikipedia, paneer is made in the following way:
To prepare paneer, food acid (usually simple lemon juice or vinegar) is added to hot milk to separate the curds from the whey. The curds are then drained in a muslin cloth or cheesecloth and excess water is pressed out. Next, the obtained paneer is dipped in chilled water for 2-3 hours to give it a good texture and appearance.
From this point, the preparation of paneer diverges based on its use. In Mughlai cuisine, the paneer-cloth is put under a heavy weight, such as a stone slab, for 2-3 hours, and is then cut into cubes for use in curries. Pressing for a shorter time (approximately 20 minutes), results in a softer, fluffier cheese. Oriya cuisine and Bengali cuisine demand paneer-dough produced by beating or kneading the paneer by hand into a dough-like consistency.
The “dough-like consistency” fools you in believing that you are not actually eating cheese when first tasting the stuff and not knowing what it is. It could be mistaken for raw or partially risen dough I suppose, although it is pure white in color. Lucky for me I found out from the onset what paneer was the first time I tried it a couple of years ago served with a lovely masala sauce. Thing is, it doesn’t taste like any European or Armenian cheese I have ever had, not even close. But when drenched in curry-laden sauces it’s delicious. Although I cannot imagine wrapping paneer in bread in its raw state and eating it.