Mattar Paneer is a classic north Indian restaurant/buffet dish. In Toronto, you can find it at just about any of the downtown restaurants (which are almost exclusively northern-style cuisine). It’s one of those dishes I stayed away from for so many years due to ignorance; I just went for the meat options which were always a safe bet for an enjoyable meal, and I had no idea what paneer was anyway. I was missing out. Mattar paneer is fantastic.
What we have is fried onions, garlic and ginger – a typical curry beginning – mixing with a slow-simmered and richly spiced tomato sauce full of fragrant spices like coriander, cinnamon, green cardamom and cloves. Then we add peas, crispy fried cubes of paneer and finish it off with cream for a smooth flavour and texture and chopped cilantro leaves for colour and freshness. Mmm.
We’re going to do this recipe in two main phases: tomato sauce, then the final curry. We’re doing this because the tomato sauce needs extra time to cook and develop it’s flavour, plus we can focus on the sauce and make sure it’s perfect. Otherwise, this is a very simple dish to master, and a great use for homemade paneer!
Tomato Sauce Ingredients:
- 400 ml can of unsalted, plain tomato sauce (if you get pre-salted sauce, just omit the 1/2 tsp of salt below – I prefer to salt it myself)
- 2 tbsp ghee
- 6 green cardamom
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 2 cloves
- 2 tsp Kashmiri chili powder
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 small- to medium-sized onion
- 1 piece of ginger 1″ x 1″ x 3/4″, approximately
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup of the spiced tomato sauce
- 1 tsp freshly ground coriander seeds
- 1 tsp coarse/kosher salt
- 1 1/2 cup frozen peas
- 1/4 cup table cream (18% mf)
- 225 g or 1/2 lb paneer, cut into 1″ cubes
- 2 tbsp chopped cilantro
Serve this with: naan or other Indian breads
What you will need: small pot with a lid for simmering the sauce, deep-sided frying pan or saute pan with a lid, measuring cups and spoons, knife and cutting board, small food processor, wooden spoon, can opener, small bowls for organization
- Prepare the tomato sauce: in the small pot, heat the ghee over medium heat (4-5 on my dial). Once it’s hot, add the whole spices: green cardamom, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and cloves. Let them sizzle until they are fragrant – about a minute perhaps. Don’t overcook them, though; once the smell of the spices is noticeable, move to the next step.
- Add the tomato sauce to the pot. Carefully! It will probably splatter quite a bit initially, and it’ll be hot! Once the tomato sauce is safely in the pot, sprinkle in the black pepper, Kashmiri chili powder and salt.
- Lower the heat to low (or 1-2 on my dial) and cover the pot. Let it simmer this way for about 25 minutes.
- In the meantime, fry the paneer cubes. Heat the frying pan over medium heat and add the 2 tbsp of oil. When the pan is hot, add the cubes gently in an even layer. Fry them on each side for a few minutes or until the edges/surface turn golden brown. A non-stick pan will certainly help when doing this. Do not discard the oil in the pan. We’ll use it to start the curry (no sense wasting perfectly good oil!)
- In the last 5-10 minutes before your tomato sauce has finished simmering, roughly chop the onion, and add the chopped onion, garlic cloves and piece of ginger to a small food processor. Process it until it’s a minced texture. If you have no food processor, you’re stuck with attempting to chop these ingredients as fine as you can. I wish you the best of luck; the smoother the mix is, the smoother the curry will be. Set this aside in a bowl near the frying pan. Your tomato sauce should be done about now. Don’t forget to remove it from the heat. Once it’s cooled somewhat, measure out 1 cup of it and keep it reserved near your cooking area. If you can, remove as many of the whole spices as possible. Cloves can be elusive.
- Start the curry. Re-heat the oil and frying pan over medium heat (5 on my dial). When the pan is hot, add the whole cumin seeds and the bay leaf and fry them for 5-10 seconds until they sizzle and are fragrant.
- Add the onion paste to the frying pan and fry it for 5-7 minutes, or until it turns a light brown colour and is sweetly fragrant. It shouldn’t smell “raw” by the end of this stage. Remember to stir a few times so the onion paste doesn’t stick and burn.
- Next, add the spiced tomato sauce, freshly ground coriander, and salt. Stir all the pan ingredients together.
- Lower the heat to medium-low (about 3 on my dial), partially cover the frying pan and simmer the curry for about 5 minutes or until the oil begins to separate. We’re giving time here for the flavours to blend together and for the tomato sauce to get back up to a hot temperature.
- Add a 1/4 cup of warm water and the peas. Stir them into the curry, then cover the pan completely and simmer the mix for 10 minutes, until the peas are nicely cooked through.
- Remove the lid now, and stir in the cream and chopped cilantro.
- Gently add the paneer cubes now, and stir them until they are covered in the sauce, and evenly distributed. Simmer the curry for an additional 5 minutes to heat the paneer cubes through.
- The curry is done! Before serving, remove any remaining whole spices (if you didn’t get all of them out of the tomato sauce) and the bay leaf from the curry. If you can’t find them, just remind your friends to keep an eye out for them (don’t eat them!)
Vegetarians/Vegans: This is a pretty easy dish to convert for your usage. As paneer is very similar to tofu, you can definitely substitute fried tofu for the fried paneer. Swap more vegetable oil for the ghee. For the cream, you could substitute soy-based milk or yogurt. Unsweetened coconut cream could also be an interesting idea.