Nestled between Murray Hill and Gramercy, two straight-laced neighborhoods on the East side of Manhattan, is vibrant “Curry Hill,” with row after row of Indian restaurants serving Mughlai restaurant standards. The gateway to all the goodness is matar paneer, a simple dish of spiced peas and fried cheese—one that is so unbelievably more than the sum of its parts, especially when sopped up with naan and chutneys.
This post is part of the Eating New York series.
Always served with a flight of curries and plenty of naan, matar paneer is a star on the menu of any and all Curry Hill restaurants in the upper 20s of the East Side (not to mention every restaurant on Curry Row on E. 6th Street). And rightfully so: this soulful dish fills the bellies of starving artists (among others) with just-right, flavorful-but-not-hot spice. It’s difficult to find kosher, but, happily, easy to make for yourself.
About paneer cheese
Paneer cheese, also called Indian cottage cheese, isn’t like Western cottage cheese—it’s more like Greek haloumi cheese, firm and sliceable and non-melty when fried. It’s difficult to find kosher paneer cheese, but it’s really easy to make it. I have a post about making paneer, along with step-by-step photos. You don’t need any special equipment or ingredients to make it, other than cheesecloth. Making paneer is similar to making farmer’s cheese (your basic homemade cheese), except that paneer is pressed more firmly after draining.
Frying the paneer
Matar paneer starts off with pan-frying the paneer. Paneer is quite amenable to cutting and frying, much like haloumi cheese. It’ll brown and crisp nicely in just a little bit of oil or ghee. After the paneer is all browned up, set it aside and use the skillet to make the sauce.
Making the sauce for matar paneer
The main part of the dish comes together fast with a toasted spices and a tomato paste. The peas go in once the sauce comes together, then the fried paneer.
By the way, you’ll want some rice and naan (pita also works) to sop up the sauce, yes?
Making vegan (dairy-free) matar paneer
It’s easy to convert this recipe to be vegan/dairy free/parve, just by swapping in tofu for the paneer. Yes, you’ll lose something in translation, but it’s surprisingly close to the cheesy real thing. I make it this way to serve along with an Indian meat main.
Matar Paneer (dairy)
- 2 Tbsp coconut oil or ghee
- 1 ½-2 cups cubed paneer
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1/2 tsp coriander
- pinch granulated sugar
- 1 Tbsp tomato paste
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 ½ cups frozen peas
- handful fresh cilantro, to serve – optional
Fry the paneer:
- Heat 1 tablspoon coconut oil/ghee in a skillet over medium heat. Add the cubed paneer and cook for 1-2 minutes per side, until golden. Set aside.
Make the sauce:
- In the same skillet, add the remaining 1 Tbsp of oil/ghee. Add the cumin seeds and cook until they darken slightly, 30 seconds to 1 minute.
- Add the dry spices to the oil and toast for another 30 seconds.
- Add the tomato paste into the skillet, then the 1/2 cup water. Stir to combine. Leave to simmer for 4-5 minutes, until the oil begins to separate from the sauce.
Cook the peas in the sauce:
- Add the peas to the sauce and cook for 5-7 minutes, until softened. Add more water as needed, a tablespoon or two at a time.
Finish the dish:
- Fold the paneer into the peas and sauce and simmer for an additional 2-3 minutes. Garnish with fresh chopped chilantro.