Julia Child in Delhi – Italian Woman’s Lockdown Paneer, South Delhi
The great chef’s life in Delhi.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
She’s a garlic-loving Italian woman, living in Delhi, and she makes Indian dishes better than many Indians. Her dal makhani is as buttery as in any respectable Punjabi household. And her (dry) aloo palak is so tasty that you might as well pester her to start her home catering service.
A designer in her 50s, she is however painfully modest and has urged her identity to remain secret for this dispatch.
“Kyunki mein Bharat mein bahut salon se hoon,” she says in fluent Hindi, explaining that her familiarity with desi cuisine comes from the fact that she has been living in the country for long. “I first came to India as a backpacking tourist in 1997,” she says. She married a hotelier in Khajuraho and, putting an end to all the queries about her private life, she firmly declares that “the rest is history.”
One of the woman’s most loved creations is something very simple—her home-made cottage cheese. “It’s called paneer,” she exclaims in mock outrage.
The lady lives alone in a south Delhi apartment. During these unpredictable times of coronavirus pandemic, many of the other Italians she knows in India have decided to go back to their country with special flights arranged by their government. But she is staying.
“Why would I flee?” she asks in genuine curiosity. “My home is in Delhi, my world is here.”
In these days of lockdown, when more and more people, self-isolated in their homes, are rustling out all sorts of fancy pastas and cakes to kill the boredom—and sharing the teasing pictures on Facebook—this lady’s cooking routines haven’t altered much. She has always been ingenious in her kitchen, and would make complicated dishes even during the BC (before corona) era. She rarely buys ingredients from outside if she can make them at home (pesto sauce is an exception).
And paneer is one of the lady’s much-admired creations in her circle of acquaintances.
“Making it demands no fuss… it’s not like making rotis.” (She makes perfectly round rotis, by the way.)
The Italian is unable to recall from whom she learned to make paneer, but it’s one of the better and very good-looking paneer you might have had in your entire life—full of flavour and very soft, if you like it that way.
Make no mistake, however. The woman grew up in a country where people are almost as finicky about cheese as the French. Indeed, she boldly confesses that “if there’s Italian goat cheese on one side and paneer on the other side, I’ll pick the goat cheese.”
Alas, “imported cheese” can be very expensive in Delhi. Once upon a time the lady was friend with the wife of the then Italian ambassador “and she would treat me to all sorts of cheese from home… These European embassies are stocked with best wine too.”
Coming back to paneer, she says that some years ago she bought a special colander-like bartan from Lajpat Nagar Central Market to prepare it. The bartan makes the process far easier, she affirms. “Anybody stuck at home in the lockdown can make paneer without much jhanjhat (trouble).”
Here’s her recipe.
Signore’s cottage cheese
1. Full cream milk, two litres
2. Two lemons
1. Add milk in a pateela (pot), make sure to squeeze out the cream from the milk packet.
2. Place the pateela on fire on a medium flame. Turn it off when the milk begins to boil.
3. Now squeeze the lemons into the milk. Make sure to keep out the seeds.
4. Stir with a wooden ladle until the milk starts to curdle, and the yellowish liquid separates from the flake-like formations.
5. When it is totally separated, transfer the curdled blocks of milk into the bartan.
6. Put the pateela in the sink. Place two ladles across the top and keep the bartan on them. The liquid gradually empties into the pateela.
7. Now flatten the mass of curdled milk with a spoon to remove the remaining liquid.
8. Cover the bartan with a lid and put a marble mortar. The watery thing will keep coming out slowly for the next 30 minutes.
9. Now transfer the paneer onto the plate, the way you would transfer the cake from the baking tray onto a flat plate—by placing the plate on the top of the bartan and then turning it upside down.
10. Keep the paneer immediately in the fridge in a box filled with water to keep it soft and fresh.
11. Change the water every two days to keep the paneer fresh. It will easily last for a week.
And never ever call paneer “cottage cheese”. You are then insulting both paneer and cheese.
And she created paneer