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Paneer: India’s Uncommon Curds
One common ingredient on most any Indian menu is a unique cheese known as paneer. Read on to learn what makes this staple so special.
What makes paneer—the protein-rich curd cheese that’s a staple of vegetarian Indian cuisine—different from other cheeses isn’t that it doesn’t melt. Rather, it’s the ingredient missing from the recipe: unlike most cheeses, which include the animal byproduct rennet, paneer is wholly lacto-vegetarian. In place of rennet, paneer makers use food acids such as lemon juice or vinegar to curdle hot milk. The resulting curds are usually pressed and strained through muslin or cheesecloth until they reach a firm texture similar to that of tofu. That’s the type of paneer you'll find in popular Northern Indian dishes such as palak paneer, a creamy spinach curry mixed with cubes of the cheese. However, regional variations exist, too. In eastern India, paneer is often left unpressed to create a softer, fluffier cheese called chhana, and if rolled into balls and boiled in sugary syrup, the chhana dough becomes rasgulla, a popular Bengali dessert.