International cooking for the youthful malcontent.

In Defense of (My) Food

There’s been much writing lately on the health and pocketbook benefits of home-cooked food. I am not going to attempt to rehash any of their general arguments, but I will begin this post by establishing the idea that avoiding frozen meals, fast-food and ready-made store products is a “good/healthy/economical” thing to do. If you accept this idea, then we can move on.

Numerous commentors over the weekend decried paneer as an extremely fatty and unhealthy food, even while agreeing that it was also very enjoyable. I will not lie to you and tell you that paneer is not fatty – it’s condensed cheese curds, therefore it’s almost pure milk fat and protein – but I do take issue with anyone suggesting that it should be avoided for this fact. As with nearly all foods/things, moderation is key; it would be absurd to recommend eating an entire pound of any kind of cheese, paneer or otherwise, but a moderate portion of paneer is neither terrible nor especially unhealthy.

To start, my recipes are not intended to be “healthy”, but neither are they all that “unhealthy” when placed into context. The last recipe I posted was for Mattar Paneer, which is a thick, creamy tomato sauce with green peas and paneer cubes (it sounds like it’s ruinous for your diet, right?). If we focus on the fact that paneer is fatty, and lose sight of how much you’re actually eating and what you’re eating with it, we’d never eat it. I often find too many people shy away from certain foods because they have developed a bad reputation that is not always deserved. It’s a twofold shame because food is not supposed to be just a bunch of nutritional facts and figures – it’s also about the experience of eating. Eating great food can be blissful – a rich, joyful and satisfying experience.

But, if we’re going to look at the numbers, then let’s look at the numbers. I will now break down all of the individual ingredients from the Mattar Paneer (not ordinarily considered “healthy” in the first place) and calculate an estimated calorie-count.

Mattar Paneer:

  • 1 cup of tomato sauce = 90 calories
  • 2 tbsp ghee = 240
  • 1 medium onion = 45
  • ginger = 2
  • 3 cloves of garlic = 12
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil = 240
  • 1 1/2 cup of green peas = 180
  • 1/4 cup of table cream = 100
  • 225 g of paneer = approx. 700
  • misc. powdered and whole spices = approx. 40

Total: 1650 calories

Calories / Portion (recipe makes 4-6 portions): 275-412 calories

Consider that you would eat this with 2 pieces of chapati, or 1 piece of naan bread (either option totalling about 170 calories) and perhaps a cucumber salad (15 calories for 1/2 cup portion) and the grand total for a complete meal portion would be about 500 calories. Now, the obvious problem with the recipe is that a large portion of those calories come from saturated fat sources (ghee, paneer, vegetable oil), but according to recommended daily intakes, it’s still within the acceptable range for normal eating/activity habits (plus you get the benefits of loads of calcium from the paneer, as well as plenty of vitamins from the vegetables and sauce). It’s not great, of course, but as long as you don’t eat mattar paneer twice a day for 2 weeks, it shouldn’t be overly concerning to the average person. However, if one is still concerned, let us go further and place this into context with other common foods:

  • Jenny Craig’s Spaghetti and Meatballs (1 serving) = 270 calories
  • Compliments-brand medium-sized banana muffin (1 muffin) = 300 calories
  • Grilled 4 oz salmon fillet with asparagus and plain angel hair pasta = 450 calories
  • Mattar Paneer with chapati and cucumber salad = 500 calories
  • Wendy’s Mandarin chicken salad with grilled fillet = 540 calories
  • Stouffer’s Spaghetti and Meatballs (1 serving) = 590 calories
  • 8 oz ribeye steak and baked potato w/butter = 600 calories
  • McDonald’s Big Mac and Medium-sized fries and Coke = 1140 calories
Sources: thedailyplate.com, dailyburn.com

As you can see, the homemade mattar paneer is hardly health-food, but it fares pretty well when compared to heavier dishes, frozen foods, and fast-foods (and I’d much rather eat my fresh homemade curry than a frozen spaghetti and meatball dinner!). It’s main problem is not high caloric content, but a balance of calories that leans slightly more heavy on fat than on carbohydrates. Once again, the amount of fat is higher than, say, a plain salad, but it’s cheese, after all – one should expect cheese to be protein- and fat-dense. Mattar paneer is an indulgence, and considering the fat and caloric contents of other indulgences (a single slice of chocolate cake could run you 350-400 calories while providing almost no vitamins whatsoever), a meal of mattar paneer with chapati and side vegetables isn’t that terrible for you at all, and provides plenty of nutritional value along with its higher-fat content (which many typical Western sugar- and fat-laced dishes cannot claim).

To sum up: know your ingredients. Many ingredients in isolation and in excess are not good for your health. Eating a cup of pure ghee would be terrible for you, but adding 2 tbsp to a curry for 4 people is not outrageous. One of the great things about home-cooking is the ability to monitor and measure what you’re putting into your body, but with that also comes the temptation to altogether avoid ingredients labelled by a zealous and concerned public as “unhealthy” – things like salt (don’t get me started), oils, and non-skim milk. These are things that are unhealthy in excess, but the body does require a certain level of sodium and fat to function ideally. Therefore, moderation should be the primary concern, not total avoidance. Besides, paneer is still a highly enjoyable and satisfying food experience, even in small amounts – the idea of avoiding it completely is plain depressing.

Mattar Paneer, a Lower-Fat Version

Remove the ghee altogether, and use 1 tbsp of vegetable oil in the tomato sauce preparation, and 1 tbsp to cook the onion paste. This will save 240 calories overall and plenty of saturated fat. Substituting 1/4 cup of plain low-fat yogurt for the table cream will save you about 75 overall calories. These two changes alone will lower the individual portion calorie-count from 275-412 to 222-333 calories. I can hardly see many people complaining about this many calories in a dinnertime meal when an average male at a desk-job (like me) needs an estimated 2000 calories daily for weight maintenance alone, but if you want to cut a little back without sacrificing much flavour, there you go. Whichever way you choose to go, I would hope that you remember that eating food that is good for you is extremely important, but also that eating foods you actually enjoy is just as important; there’s absolutely no reason to not love what you eat.

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6 responses

  1. Gee – people complained?

    I was all stoked to try making paneer myself and am grateful that you bothered to make such a super post about it.

    In fact, I would like it if you post more recipes like it – they are very interesting and look delicious.

    Any Asian/Indian food makes me a very happy lady – learning how to prepare it myself only more so…

    Thank you.

    M.L.

    April 26, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    • I wouldn’t say there were “complaints” so much as there were multiple “warnings” about the dangers of eating evil cheese. 😀

      It’s a trend I am noticing the more I pay attention to how other people eat. I am really tired of hearing people go on and on about “I can’t possibly eat even half of that cookie” while staring obsessively at that cookie for 10 minutes, or bragging about how, at home, they never use any salt in their cooking (which means their food is probably terrible), because salt is “bad for you”.

      We’re making ourselves afraid to like food.

      *deep breath*

      But thanks for reading and commenting. I do hope you (and the many others who also expressed interest) try making your own cheese at home. I had been meaning to give it a try for a long time, and it turned out to be easy. My girlfriend said it tastes just like the paneer from the store, and she was extremely skeptical, as usual. 😀

      April 26, 2010 at 2:52 pm

  2. P,S.?

    I would have made the full fat version first to make sure I had the flavors set in my mind and then I probably would have made some of the modifications you suggested to lower the fat and calories.

    If I had found that I didn’t like the changes – I would have continued doing it the original way and just planned the rest of my calories/fat intake to balance.

    Food should be something to enjoy – you are right.

    Moderation isn’t too much to ask if you want to be able to enjoy something a little more decadent every once in a while.

    M.L.

    April 26, 2010 at 2:29 pm

  3. Anuja

    Your girlfriend is full of skepticism and love. Like in your cooking, it is the flavourful balance of these two ingredients that make her the best. girlfriend. ever.
    Or so I hear. 😉

    April 26, 2010 at 4:28 pm

  4. like your cookking style!
    thnx for sharing

    April 27, 2010 at 6:43 am

  5. I agree with “wordsweneversaid” – I am totally psyched about making paneer in my house, no matter the fat content. And you’re right NoMoreMicrowaves, moderation is the key.

    Thanks for writing such a great post! The pictures were the best part (and I’m sure the most time consuming & difficult portion of the task for you!). I’ve actually got several recipes for paneer, but yours is the one that made me go buy the milk & cheesecloth and prepare for my own Indian food fest.

    I’ll have a little paneer, and then go to the gym for a little workout. Moderation folks.

    April 27, 2010 at 1:20 pm

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