Anatomy of a dish: saag paneer

It’s easy being green with this spice-fuelled Indian classic.
Will Horner

In Hindi, saag quite literally means “greens”. Fitting, as the base for this vegetarian Indian dish comprises spinach, along with aromatic spices and soft pillows of fresh cheese curd known as paneer. In India, regional variations of the dish showcase different types of greens, including amaranth leaves, mustard greens or fenugreek, which are boiled, blanched and flavoured with a mixture of spices, ghee, onion and garlic.

At his mod-Indian restaurant Don’t Tell Aunty in Sydney, Jessi Singh likes to add a pinch of ground asafoetida, a spice made from the roots of ferula (a flowering plant in the carrot family), to up the umami. This comforting Indian classic can be made in bulk, then portioned and frozen for easy mid-week meals.

1. The cheese

Paneer is a fresh, unsalted white cheese. Like other varieties of the fresh cheese family (haloumi, queso fresco), paneer doesn’t melt when exposed to extreme heat, making it an ideal addition to the hot saag mixture. It can be used as is in the dish, or first lightly fried until golden. If you can’t find paneer use firm cottage cheese or ricotta salata; for vegans, substitute the cheese for firm tofu.

2. The greens

The most common version of this dish is palak (spinach) paneer. Some recipes suggest using frozen spinach, but fresh leaves make for a drier, more textural saag. Boiled, blanched in iced water and thoroughly drained, the spinach is then blitzed in a blender and gently cooked with ghee and spices to create a fragrant purée. Modern interpretations of this recipe also use broccoli for extra crunch.

3. The spices

Spices bring the subtle flavours of the greens to life. Garlic, onion and chilli are essentials, as are dry spices such as garam masala, cumin and turmeric. These are cooked in a frying pan with ghee, resulting in a heady, perfumed paste in which the greens are simmered.

Where to find it

At Don’t Tell Aunty in Sydney, Singh offers a simple palak paneer made with spinach, broccoli and fenugreek, which is served with rice and naan. In Melbourne, Cafe Saffron replaces paneer with cottage cheese for an extra creamy alternative.

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