Perfecting paneer: how UAE cookbook author Vandana Jain is reinventing humble cottage cheese

The UAE resident explains why she was inspired to write 'Vandana’s Paneer Creations' and shares a couple of recipes from her book

Manzil-e-paneer, a dish from 'Vandana's Paneer Creations'. Courtesy Vandana Jain
Manzil-e-paneer, a dish from 'Vandana's Paneer Creations'. Courtesy Vandana Jain

Think of paneer and usually ideas of creamy butter masalas and other Indian curries come to mind.

The famous cottage cheese, which originated in India, is usually confined to hearty main courses – but one UAE resident is working to reinvent this reputation.

Chef and entrepreneur Vandana Jain has released a new cookbook, Vandana’s Paneer Creations, which showcases intriguing and interesting uses for the ingredient. The book features more than 100 recipes, broken down according to sections such as finger food, appetisers, salads, mains and dessert, with many never-seen-before dishes.

Manzil-e-paneer, for example, is a sandwich-like main course featuring layers of the cottage cheese. Other dishes include the paneer sizzler and an Indonesian paneer tikka. Meanwhile, the dessert section has everything from paneer and lemon tarts to cheesecake, and paneer and Oreo bites to paneer churros.

“When people see the range in the cookbook, they can seldom believe it,” Jain says.

Jain started her culinary journey approximately 21 years ago while living in Tanzania with her husband. As a vegetarian, she found her food options limited in the primarily meat-eating country.

With a love for cooking, and an ardent foodie for a husband, she took to experimenting with dishes, and was soon conducting cooking classes for her neighbours, who were intrigued by Indian vegetarian dishes and their spices.

Royal apricot extravaganza is a dish of paneer and apricot. Courtesy Vandana Jain
Royal apricot extravaganza is a dish of paneer and apricot. Courtesy Vandana Jain

It’s a passion she took to the UAE when she moved to Dubai five years later. Sensing a gap in the market for strictly vegetarian cooking, Jain launched Vandana Jain Cooking Classes to teach others her recipes – and learnt quite a few new ones in the process.

“That was before vegetarianism, or veganism, had really become big. So I would get plenty of requests on how to recreate a meat dish – like lasagne or sushi – as a vegetarian one.

"I never turned down requests like these as I don’t want to limit their imagination or how much I can learn. I intend to be a student all my life, and to be able to learn new dishes and impart that knowledge is a beautiful thing.”

UAE resident Vandana Jain has written a cookbook called 'Vandana's Paneer Creations' to highlight the versatility of the ingredient. Courtesy Vandana Jain
UAE resident Vandana Jain was inspired to write a paneer-based cookbook after a visit to France. Courtesy Vandana Jain

The desire to impart knowledge is what led her to pen her first book, Vandana’s Veggie Creations, which received an award for best Indian cuisine book at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris in 2013. It was during the trip to France to collect the award that Jain ventured in to one of the libraries there and discovered single-ingredient cookbooks. As an ardent paneer fan, she knew she had found the subject of her next book.

She says the versatility of the ingredient made it easier. “In India, paneer is popular because people discovered they could easily make it by adding a few drops of vinegar or lemon juice to leftover milk in the house. And the result is something that is completely new, with a crumbly texture that makes it perfect for Indian sweets, or to add richness to just about any Indian main or curry.

“But paneer is like water – it can adapt to anything. One of the reasons I wrote this cookbook is to prove that it can just as easily be used as light bites or fusion dishes.”

Fruity paneer coconut "sandwiches". Courtesy Vandana Jain
Fruity paneer coconut 'sandwiches'. Courtesy Vandana Jain

Jain says that while paneer has health benefits – the ingredient is rich in protein and calcium, for example – it is a cheese at the end of the day and needs to be consumed in moderation. It is also not suitable for those who are lactose intolerant or vegan.

“People are becoming more conscious of what they eat. Despite the fact that I’ve written a book on paneer, I’m a strong believer in veganism as well, and think it has enormous benefits to our health and the planet. My classes already teach over 6,000 vegan recipes and I love proving how vegan dishes can be incredibly tasty and easy to make.”

And just like that, she says the theme of her next cookbook is already beginning to take shape.

Quinoa paneer roll by Vandana Jain

Quina paneer roll. Courtesy Vandana Jain
Quina paneer roll. Courtesy Vandana Jain

Ingredients

1 cup boiled quinoa

1 cup fresh cottage cheese

1 tsp garlic, crushed

1 tsp ginger, finely chopped

1 tsp green chilli, finely chopped

3 tbsp onions, chopped

3 tbsp tomatoes, chopped

¼ tsp turmeric powder

¼ tsp paprika powder

¼ tsp chaat masala

2 tbsp cashew nuts, broken

Salt to taste

2 tbsp oil

Method

  • Heat the oil, add ginger, garlic, onions and green chilli and saute for a minute.
  • Add tomatoes, turmeric, paprika and saute for another minute.
  • Add quinoa, cottage cheese, cashew nuts and chaat masala and saute and cook for two to three minutes.
  • Serve hot on the toasted bread slice and garnish with fresh coriander leaves.

Smoky angara malai paneer by Vandana Jain

Smoky malai angara paneer. Courtesy Vandana Jain
Smoky malai angara paneer. Courtesy Vandana Jain

Ingredients

250g cottage cheese

To be mixed for the marination

2 tbsp cashew paste

2 tbsp hung curd

2 tbsp cooking cream

1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste

1 tsp green chilli, finely chopped

½ tsp green cardamom powder

¼ tsp black pepper powder

¼ tsp white pepper powder

Salt to taste

For the smoky effect

Charcoal

Butter

For serving

Green chutney

Pickled onions

Method

  • Mix the paneer cubes with the marination and leave for 15-20 minutes.
  • Grill in a tandoor or oven until light golden in colour.

For the smoky effect

  • Heat the charcoal, add butter on top of it and cover for a minute.
  • Serve the smoky malai paneer with green chutney and pickled onions.

Updated: May 23, 2021 02:57 PM

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