It’s a common complaint among many South Indians in the diaspora that people’s (and here I mostly mean Westerners’) awareness of Indian food, inasmuch as they’re even aware of it, is limited to the food of the north of India.
While there’s certainly some truth to this—the styles of dhal and rice and roti that most outsiders associate with India almost always have their origin somewhere in the north of the country. But it’s always struck me that this phenomenon, as necessary as it is to acknowledge, disregards the fact that the same machinery that has made “North Indian” restaurant food so ubiquitous, has also stripped it of so much of its actual qualities. It’s not just South Indian food that suffers from the preponderance of “Mughlai”-style curries and faux-dhaba-style cuisine—it’s the cuisines of the places that these dishes often purport to come from. Instead of dishes rooted in geography, tradition, custom, you have flavor bombs saturated with cream and ghee, with everything dialed up to ten. How could this possibly leave any room for the subtle, winning charms of these regional cuisines?
Palak paneer is just one of the many casualties of this trend. A dish that should be wonderfully simple and straightforward: a combination of lovely bitter-bright spinach and creamy, tender paneer, yet one that in most restaurants is almost always cooked in floods of cream so that you’d be hard-pressed to tell that it even has any spinach in it at all—except for its swampy green colour (and I say this with love and admiration for swampy green, one of my favourite shades of green).
This version of palak paneer is exceedingly simple. It will be at its best when you can get beautiful fresh spinach, but it is still delicious when you have to resort to the frozen stuff (as one must in New York in the winter). I’m personally not overly fond of uncannily smooth sauces, so rather than purée all of the sauce here, I blend only part of it, which lends the spinach some body but doesn’t end up making it look (and taste) like bright green baby food.
A note on paneer: I think it’s worth making the paneer for this recipe yourself, but if you don’t have the time or (even better) you have access to good, fresh paneer, feel free to use that instead.
1 onion, peeled and chopped into fine dice
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced
2 tsp garam masala
2 small green chillis (bird’s eye or Serrano) split in half lengthwise
2 large bunches of fresh spinach (or two 10-oz packages frozen, chopped spinach)
0.5 lb homemade paneer (or store-bought, if you don’t have it) cut into ¾-inch cubes
Ghee for cooking
First, if you are using fresh spinach, set a steamer basket in a large Dutch oven filled with half inch of water. Steam the spinach for five minutes till the spinach has wilted and become a lovely dense green. Remove from the steamer and shock in cold water before squeezing completely dry.
If using store-bought paneer, you can soak the cubes in the spinach cooking liquid, which will plump them up and soften them up for their eventual immersion in the cooked sauce. If using homemade paneer you can skip this step.
Using a large chef’s knife, chop the cooked spinach as finely as your patience will allow, then set aside till needed.
If using frozen spinach, merely remove the spinach from its packaging and keep aside till ready to use. It need not be fully defrosted before you begin the recipe.
Heat two tablespoons of ghee in a large Dutch oven or kadhai over medium-high heat till the oil begins to shimmer.
Add the chopped onion and a pinch of salt and allow to cook, stirring often, for two minutes, or until the onion has softened but not taken on any color.
Add the minced ginger and cook for another two minutes, till the smell of the ginger has deepened and smells less raw.
Add the garam masala powder and the sliced green chilli and sauté for two to three minutes, or until the chillies are blistered and you can detect the faint prickly fragrance of their herbal heat.
Add the chopped fresh spinach or the blocks of frozen spinach. If using the fresh spinach, stir to mix with the spices in the pan and then add up to three cups of water so that you have a soupy but still fairly thick mixture. If you happen to have the whey from making the paneer handy, you can use that instead of water here. If using the frozen spinach, merely add the blocks of spinach to the pan with the water (or whey) and cook, covered, on low heat, for ten minutes, till the spinach has thawed, before uncovering the pan and stirring well.
Allow the mixture to cook for twenty minutes over low heat, partly covered. (The sauce will be quite thick at this point and will spatter and create a mess all over your stove if you leave the pan uncovered.)
Remove a cup and a half of the spinach gravy to the jar of a blender or the cup of an immersion blender. Blend till smooth and pour back into the pan.
Stir well to combine then taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.
Turn the heat down as low as it goes, and add the cubes of paneer to the pan. Gently nudge the pieces of paneer into the pan so that they’re all well covered with the sauce. Allow to cook for ten minutes on lowest heat, to allow the paneer to absorb the flavors from the sauce. Serve hot with rotis and dhal.