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Indian dish gets its richness from tomato, spices and pureed cashews

Joe Yonan

THE WASHINGTON POST – 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 favourite 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.

Simple butter paneer. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

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 said 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 skeptical, 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 and a non-dairy cream alternative, 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

This popular restaurant dish, sometimes called paneer butter masala or paneer makhani, uses cashews and tomatoes to enrobe the Indian cheese cubes in a rich, gently spiced sauce. It employs three kinds of dairy, but you can use tofu, vegan butter and nondairy cream alternative if you’d like. Serve with flatbread or rice.


½ cup raw cashews
½ cup boiling water

Four tablespoons unsalted butter (may substitute vegan butter), divided
Eight ounces paneer, cut into one-inch cubes (may substitute extra-firm tofu, drained and patted dry)
Two cups tomato puree
¾ teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon garam masala
½ teaspoon paprika
One cup water
One teaspoon granulated sugar
Three tablespoons heavy cream (may substitute nondairy cream alternative, such as Silk brand)
½ teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt, plus more to taste
One teaspoon coarsely grated fresh ginger (optional)
Five slices red chile (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 one tablespoon of the butter. Add the paneer and cook, turning the cubes occasionally, until light golden brown on at least two sides, five to seven minutes. Transfer to a small bowl.

Add the remaining three table-spoons 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, chili powder, garam masala and paprika. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens, one to two minutes.

Stir in the water and add the paneer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture darkens and oil rises to the surface, five to seven 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 chile slices, if using, and serve warm.

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