March 8, 2005
Palak Paneer - Indian Spinach and Cheese - First Version

palak paneerLet's start with a definition. I've long been confused by the distinction between palak paneer and saag (or sag) paneer. Both appear to the uneducated Western eater (that's me) to be spinach in spices mixed with cubes of a simple cheese.

Saag paneer is apparently made with "green leaves such as spinach, mustard greens and fresh fenugreek leaves", while spinach all by itself is a palak paneer. If anyone has more insight on the proper distinction between these dishes, please leave a note in the comments.

As I noted yesterday, palak paneer is the one dish we always order when we go to an Indian restaurant. Inspired by Meg's posts from last week, I picked up a copy of Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Westerner turned Vedic disciple Yamuna Devi. The paneer cheese I posted yesterday (and which we'll use today) is based on techniques in this book, as is the palak paneer recipe for today. I haven't made much from the cookbok yet, but I've been impressed by it. This is an Ayurvedic Indian cookbook so onions and garlic are not used in any of the recipes. I love garlic and onions, but from what I've seen and tasted so far, they aren't missed.

I don't personally subscribe to the philosophy of Ayurveda, but I know good recipes when I see them. So did Julia Child and Deborah Madison whose praise for Devi's book adorns the back cover. Lord Krishna's Cuisine is not a book for the timid or complete beginner cook, and you must really read each recipe start to finish before beginning. If you can handle a knife, follow a recipe well, and have made some relatively complex recipes Devi's book is well worth picking up.

Here's a slightly modified recipe from the book for Palak Paneer. Pay close attention to the tablespoons and teaspoons as there are many fractional measures of spices.

Palak Paneer from a recipe by Yamuna Devi
Paneer (simple cheese) made from about 1/2 gallon of whole milk - recipe here, cut into 1/2" cubes.
2 10 oz. packages of frozen spinach, defrosted and moisture sqeezed out, or two and half pounds of fresh spinach, wilted, chopped and moisture squezed out.

4 tablespoons of the whey from the paneer making (See, I told you we'd use some of that whey!) Substitute water if no whey is available, but be just a little sad.
2 small green chiles (serranos or jalapenos), chopped fine
1/2 tablespoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon tumeric
1/4 teaspoon paprika
thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and diced

6 tablespoons ghee or butter. Use ghee (a clarified butter) if you can. You can make it from scratch if you'd like to better feel the connection to the food, but if you have an Indian market in your area, it's much easier just to buy ghee.

3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon garam masala, a South Asian spice mix. You can make it yourself, but again, it's easier to buy it pre-made.
1/2 teaspoon salt

Cover a dinner plate with paper towels.

Using a small blender or the blending attachment to your immersion blender, combine the chiles, ginger, whey/water, coriander, tumeric, cumin, and paprika and blend in pulses until smooth. Set aside. This is the "spice blend" we use later.

Heat the ghee in a big saucepan until it is hot but not smoking. You should smell a "thick" smell from the ghee. Add the panir cheese cheese to the ghee and fry for 5 minutes or so, turning the cubes so they get browned lightly on all sides. Remove the cheese from the ghee with a slotted spoon to the plate covered with a paper towels for blotting.

CAREFULLY add the spice blend to the hot oil. You're adding a watery compund to an oil, something you really don't want to do much so watch yourself. Slide it in from the edge of the pan and be wary of splatters. Stir the oil and spices together then add the chopped, drained spinach. Cover and lower heat. Cook for 8 minutes.

After eight minutes, add the panir, salt, garam masala, and cream and stir together. Cook another 5 minutes on low to heat everything through.

Serve with simple basmati rice and Indian wheat poori bread. I'll post the poori bread tomorrow - in taste and preparation, it's a real crowd pleaser.

If the palak is the only dish you're serving, then between this and the rice and bread you should be able to serve two VERY hungry people with some leftovers or four moderately hungry ones from this recipe.

I label this the "First Version" of Palak Paneer because I felt the final dish was a little too oily for my tastes, and while I liked the golden fried cheese on its own I felt it was inappropriate when mixed with the spinach. The recipe is delicious and you should make this version at least once, but I'm going to try to re-engineer the recipe to make it a little lighter and something more like an everyday meal rather than a special treat.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at March 8, 2005 5:48 AM | TrackBack Print-friendly version

Thanks for the explanation of saag vs palak. I had assumed they were from different languages, which is often the case in India when you have different names for things.

I wonder though whether the terms have come to be used generically and interchangeably -- that would be my expectation.

Anyway, looks delicious.

Posted by paul on March 8, 2005 at 6:53 AM

Saag and paneer are both Hindi, and aren't really used interchangeably--if you had a dish w/ non-spinach greens, a native Hindi speaker probably wouldn't call it palak. But since almost no Indian restaurants use non-spinach greens, they're effectively interchangeable in that context.

It's very hard to make good north Indian food that isn't greasy, unfortunately. One trick is to play with the way that you bring out the flavors of the dry spices--lots of north Indian recipes tell you to fry the spices, but you can also dry roast them, or grind them into a paste and "boil" them.

(For v2 of the palak, by the way--try making it into a saag w/ some methi/fenugreek leaves; it adds an interesting extra layer of flavor (although some people find it too bitter, so be careful using it at first). Then you can also throw some fenugreek seeds into your spice blend, which will give it a little extra tangy, curry-like flavor.)

(Dammit... now I'm hungry again. Haven't you already been told not to post new recipes at times when people might be eating?)

Posted by Sweth on March 8, 2005 at 8:05 AM

I came very close to buying fresh fenugreek among other vegetables like bitter melon this weekend when I was in Patel Brothers grocery on Devon, but I held off since I was on foot and had already picked up 20 pounds of different dals for our pantry.

Next time I go, I'll get some fenugreek.

Posted by barrett on March 8, 2005 at 8:23 AM

Nice looking recipe. Of course, I'm from South India so I'm similarly not in the know about Saag v. Palak. . . .

Two quick suggestions, I like garlic so I have used garlic in the spice base.

Also I have blended the green mix in my Vitamix and it's an interesting twist.

I'm lazy and use tofu :)

Posted by Balasubramani on March 8, 2005 at 10:40 AM

Why does an Ayurvedic cookbook not use garlic or onions? I followed your link but didn't see them mentioned!

Posted by Meg in Paris on March 8, 2005 at 1:41 PM

I found this reference in the Law of Manu, aka the Manu Samhita, an important Hindu text.

Chapter 5, Verse 5, "Garlic, leeks and onions, mushrooms and (all plants), springing from impure (substances), are unfit to be eaten by twice-born men."

Manu is sorta equivalent to a combination of Adam in his role as first man and Moses in his role as lawgiver in Judeo-Christian literature.

Searching the web, I also found latter day justifications regarding the provenance of garlic, onions, and mushrooms (they grow in manure and dirt), and references to them making an alkaline body acidic which throws off your concentration when meditating.

The most practical justification was that yoga and meditation purify the body and make it smell sweet while sulphur compounds in garlic and onions make the body stink, counteracting the good of the yoga.

Frankly, I'd rather stink than give up garlic onions and mushrooms.

Posted by barrett on March 8, 2005 at 2:13 PM

I just asked the resident authority (my husband who studied music in Benares for some years) and he says that palak is a specific kind of saag: saag being "greens" and palak being "spinach". He said he has heard the term "Palak saag" (spinach greens)

Palak paneer is my absolute favourite! I adore it. We always serve it with naan or rotis - usually naan. (Have you made naan? It's dead easy.)

We think our palak paneer is pretty close to nirvana (if one can say that...) even though it isn't exactly traditionally made because of the way we prepare the spinach initially (by salting to wilt it, rather than parboiling). And we do use onions and garlic. Like Barrett, we'd rather stink than give up those flavours. (By the way, fenugreek is quite bitter - it's good - but on the bitter side.)

Wow!! I'm impressed! We have always bought paneer and never made it ourselves. I knew it was possible but I'm too lazy to try. (Nanak brand that we buy is so so good!)


our palak paneer recipe (there is a link to the naan recipe on that page)

Posted by ejm on March 8, 2005 at 3:53 PM

EJM - I haven't made Naan yet, but I have made Poori, which I will post tomorrow. It was also easy and the puffing up is even a bit fun.

Posted by barrett on March 8, 2005 at 4:14 PM

Let me second the vote for the fenugreek greens. They are fantastic. I use a mixture of them dried and fresh, sometimes with spinach, but often alone.

Also, lacinato kale, also often called, "dinosaur kale" is really good with saag paneer or saag aloo.

Posted by Barbara on March 9, 2005 at 8:37 AM

Thanks for the palak / saag explanation...
May explain why the saag paneer I had in Mumbai tasted bitter. I couldn't understand why spinach alone would cause it to taste that way. : )

Guess I like palak paneer. Yum!

Posted by Jill on June 9, 2005 at 10:09 AM

i have used nanak paneer, it is the best paneer. very soft texture and does not crumble. it is very ahrd to make soft paneer from homo milk, you need whole milk to get the right texture. try nanak paneer next time and you will taste the difference

Posted by gurp on September 18, 2005 at 12:16 PM

This recipe sounds yummy! But the real reason I'm going to try it out is because it made me laugh "Substitute water if no whey is available, but be just a little sad." That's awesome.

Posted by surya on October 27, 2005 at 12:54 PM

Barrett...this was a big hit. Where's this Second Version everyone who's anyone is talking about?

Posted by Justin on November 30, 2005 at 9:56 PM

I, too, LOVE this cookbook, though I have noticed that the recipes call for far more ghee, in most cases, than seems necessary. I cut the ghee by half in this recipe, and used lowfat cream cheese instead of cream, and it was just perfect. The other thing I've noticed is that you MUST cook it a bit longer than specified once the fried paneer is tossed in -- to let the cheese soften up a bit again.

Posted by Liz on February 16, 2006 at 1:39 PM

To save on the hassle, I never fry the paneer, just put it in at the end and heat gently. It seems to taste just as good and uses a bit less fat. I buy wonderful paneer at my local co-op.

Posted by Wink on November 30, 2006 at 6:09 PM

Saag = Various green leaves (Methi, Palak, Bathu, Kale)

Palak = Spinach

Posted by RK on December 17, 2006 at 10:29 AM


Good to know that north Indian dishes are gaining so much popuularity wordwide.

I am from north of India so can contribute little to make the doubts clear about saag and palak paneer.

In saag to (thicken it )gram flour is added...which is not done in palak paneer.

I hope my comments are helpful to distinguish between the two :-)

Posted by paramjit on January 15, 2007 at 11:31 PM

Glad to hear at least one explanation that makes sense - Finally. Every Indian restaurant calls the same dishes different names and it really frustrates me when trying to order. The best restaurants here in Houston don't always speak the best English (and they hire MEXICAN ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS TO BUS THE TABLES who don't speak any English either). I have even asked several Indian friends at work and even they can't explain all the variations, mostly because they don't know either.

Posted by Brandt on April 22, 2008 at 4:32 PM

I really like onions and garlic, so I added 2 gloves of fresh garlic to the mixture & added about 1 cup of diced onions to the mixture while it was in saute mode (I also held back 1 tbs of butter). I then covered it and let the onions cook over low heat for 5 minutes, then added the spinach (with a bit of fresh chopped cilantro added too). While that was simmering, I melted the saved I teaspoon of butter, added 1 tbs of flour & stirred till it bubbled but was not brown, then I added the garam masala, mixed well, and then slowly added regular milk, stirring constrantly until it was to the right consistancy. I then mixed it with the spinach, onion, cheese, spice mixture.

A few extra steps, but it was yummy!!

Also, my friend really likes Dutch cumin cheese, so while making the paneer I dry heated two tablespoons of cumin then added it to the mixture just before adding the lemon juice. Very flavorful!!

Thanks for inspiring me!!

Posted by Dana on December 10, 2008 at 5:51 PM

Saag is the spinach/greens mixture, Palak is the region in India...

Posted by Ingrid on December 18, 2009 at 4:20 PM

I'm really excited to find your recipe! I made my first paneer this evening and it was super crumbly, so I followed these final directions after drip drying the paneer from another site:
-Move the paneer to a food processor and process for about 2-3 mins or until the texture turns smooth and soft.
-Remove from processor and place on a plate with raised edges and press down to form an even flat surface.
-Let this sit for about an hour or two and then when completely set, use a knife to cut into desired shape.
This worked wonders for me and I am now easily able to cut it into cubes to be fried. Thanks for the great recipe!

Posted by Elizabeth on July 20, 2011 at 10:04 PM

Guess what? This is one of the recipe that i make often. It's super easy to make. Barely takes more time yet super nutritious. I willll try out your version soon.

Posted by Palak Paneer on December 14, 2011 at 10:40 AM

This is my all time favorite Indian dish. An Indian friend of mine said he usually substitutes tofu for the paneer. So much easier! And the taste is quite the same. I'm excited to be able to make this at home now!

Posted by Peggy on April 2, 2012 at 7:05 PM
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