Tofu just can’t compare.
If you’re even remotely familiar with Indian or other South Asian food, you’ve probably met paneer: This squeaky, fresh cheese is versatile, tasty, and a vegetarian’s best friend. It’s typically enjoyed in flavorful gravies, stuffed in flatbreads, or grilled on a kebab, but my fondest memories of paneer are of me and my brother stealing plain chunks of the cheese out of the hot pan while my mom was cooking. (Full disclosure: I have no self-control when it comes to cheese—this isn’t some nostalgic story from when I was a small child; this was probably like, a month ago.)
For the uninitiated, paneer is a fresh cheese made by adding an acid like lemon juice to hot milk to separate the curds from the whey—very similar to the process of making ricotta cheese. The curds are then strained and pressed firm into a block to then cut into cubes. It doesn’t need to be aged and doesn’t need a culture, meaning if you can’t find blocks of paneer at your supermarket or South Asian grocer, you can easily make your own in about half an hour with a recipe like this one from the Kitchn. It doesn’t melt (kind of like Halloumi cheese) and is super mild in flavor, making it a blank canvas, like tofu, that’s great at absorbing the flavors of whatever spices and seasonings you’re using.
A major difference though: It’s definitely calorically denser than a tofu, but some would argue (ahem, I would argue) the flavor payoffs are worth it. No matter how good you are at seasoning and frying tofu, there’s no replicating the richness and texture of a block of paneer.
If you’re ready to give paneer a try, you don’t need to feel restricted to Indian food—you can use it many of the ways that you would use tofu. Lightly pan-fry cubes in some oil until it’s golden brown, and you can toss them in salads, wraps, or sandwiches (McDonalds in India famously uses paneer in their sandwiches and “burgers” to cater to vegetarian customers). Crumbled paneer can be used to stuff flatbreads, or used the same way you would make a tofu scramble or tofu “sofritas” for a burrito bowl. Shredded paneer can be dipped in a savory batter and deep-fried to make fritters. Here are a few more ideas to get you started. (Alternatively, you could just eat cubes of fried cheese plain, the way I’ve been doing for years—highly recommend)
This recipe is a classic North Indian dish consisting of a spicy spinach sauce with cubes of the fried cheese. The spices in this dish pack a fragrant, flavorful punch after being lightly toasted—you don’t want to skip this step.
This kebab will have both vegetarians and meat-eaters reaching for another skewer—make sure to let the paneer marinate in the yogurt and masala to make sure all of the spices permeate the cheese for peak flavor.
Because paneer is essentially a blank canvas, you can’t go wrong with how you spice it up. We use curry powder, cumin, and garlic, but feel free to customize to your personal preferences on flavor and heat.