Fulfil your Indian takeaway cravings with this sweet and sour butter paneer

You’ve probably heard of this dish, but have you ever tried it? You’ll never look back, says Joe Yonan

Wednesday 29 December 2021 15:00

Here’s the best kind of cookbook moment: you open it, you see a recipe so appealing you have to make it, you try it, you love it, you add it to your repertoire.

Sometimes the dish is something you already know – maybe you’ve had it in restaurants many times but never thought you could (easily) make it (well) at home, and the recipe proves you wrong. Or sometimes it’s something you’ve never heard of, but wish you had, and making the recipe just confirms that feeling.

For me, this wonderfully simple path to butter paneer is a little bit of both, but also kind of neither. I had heard of butter paneer but never tried it, even though my husband and I eat Indian food at least once a week. At our favorite two places, his go-to to-go order (say that five times fast) is butter chicken, mine dal makhani. I’ve ordered saag paneer plenty of times, and paneer korma, too, but even though butter paneer is a popular restaurant dish, I’ve never seen it on the menu at these spots, even under its aliases paneer makhani and paneer butter masala. This probably means I need to broaden my list of regular Indian takeout spots.

Now that Vina Patel has taught me how to make the dish, thanks to her cookbook From Gujarat With Love, do I even need to order it from a restaurant?

Probably not. Cooking it at home is just a matter of pureeing cashews with water, then simmering pan-fried paneer cubes in a sauce of the cashews, tomato puree, spices, butter and a touch of cream. The sauce is nothing short of beautiful, a perfect marriage of complex flavours that dance on your tongue. And even though the dish didn’t originate in Gujarat, the western Indian state where Patel is from, it shows off one of the principles of Gujarati cooking: “Our food is spicy, sweet and sour,” Patel says in a phone interview from her home in Saratoga, California. “We add sugar into each and every dish, and it really balances out the sour taste.”

In this case, it’s just a teaspoon, and even though I know I’ll hear about it from readers who hate to see even a pinch in anything, I stand by its place in this sauce. If you’re sceptical, make the sauce without it, taste, then add the sugar and taste the difference. I think you’ll agree, but if you don’t, you know what to do next time.

Ultimately, when you make anything yourself, you can customise, of course. That means vegan butter (I prefer Miyoko’s) and a nondairy cream alternative (look for Silk), if you follow a strictly plant-based diet, but what about the main ingredient?

When I asked Patel about substituting extra-firm tofu for the paneer, she tried it herself and reported that, while she doesn’t like it nearly as well as the paneer, it’s certainly suitable for any vegan cooks. Try asking for that in a restaurant!

Simple butter paneer

Serves: 4

Active time: 15 minutes | Total time: 50 minutes, with soaking time

Storage notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.

Where to buy: Paneer can be found in Indian markets and well-stocked supermarkets.


For the cashew puree:

56g raw cashews

120ml boiling water

For the paneer:

4 tbsp (60g) unsalted butter (may substitute vegan butter), divided

225g paneer, cut into 2.5cm cubes (may substitute extra-firm tofu, drained and patted dry)

500g tomato puree

¾ tsp chilli powder

½ tsp garam masala

½ tsp paprika

120ml water

1 tsp granulated sugar

3 tbsp heavy cream (may substitute nondairy cream alternative, such as Silk brand)

½ tsp fine sea salt or table salt, plus more to taste

1 tsp coarsely grated fresh ginger (optional)

5 slices red chilli (optional)


Make the cashew puree: in a small bowl, combine the cashews and hot water. Let soak for 30 minutes, then transfer the mixture to a blender or mini food processor and puree until smooth.

Make the paneer: in a medium nonstick pan over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add the paneer and cook, turning the cubes occasionally, until light golden brown on at least two sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl.

Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter to the pan, and once it melts add the cashew puree. Cook, stirring, until the mixture is incorporated, then stir in the tomato puree, chilli powder, garam masala and paprika. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the water and add the paneer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture darkens and oil rises to the surface, 5 to 7 minutes (you might want to use a splatter guard here, as the bubbles tend to spit). Stir in the sugar, cream and salt and cook just until the mixture is incorporated and heated through, 30 seconds. Taste, and season with more salt, if needed.

Garnish with ginger and chilli slices, if using, and serve warm.

Nutrition information per serving | calories: 432; total fat: 34g; saturated fat: 19g; cholesterol: 85mg; sodium: 385mg; carbohydrates: 19g; dietary fibre: 3g; sugar: 10g; protein; 19g.

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian's or nutritionist's advice.

Adapted from ‘From Gujarat With Love’ by Vina Patel (Pavilion, 2021).

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