Welcome to the fifth entry in my Remembering India series, where I share recipes, meals and adventures from my 2008 studies abroad. Today I talk about one of my favorite Indian comfort foods: paneer bhurji.
My first day of school was a blazingly hot and sunny one, just a few days before the monsoons were set to begin. My pale skin and ill-equipped body were feeling the heat, big time—as evidenced by my flushed red color and profuse sweating. It was the type of heat that eliminated any sense of hunger, thirst, or productivity (yet somehow, left my sense of drama completely intact).
Our class broke for lunch, so a few classmates (who would eventually become my friends) and I took a walk to a restaurant near campus. They ordered me a glass of buttermilk, which is said to be effective at cooling your body down. I sipped the salty-sour liquid, embarrassed, but also humbled that these people I hardly knew were trying to make me feel comfortable.
I really wanted the buttermilk to be a magical cure, if for no other reason than to prove that I was tough enough to handle the hot Indian sun—and the tall glass whose contents (in my opinion) were so remarkably unrefreshing.
So I sipped it anyway as I stared at the menu—realizing that not a single dish looked familiar to me. In a short while I was going to have to admit that I needed help ordering—which I was reluctant to do after being such a wimp already.
At some point I caved, receiving two recommendations: masala dosa, a paper-thin pancake stuffed with seasoned potatoes, onions and chilis; and paneer bhurji, a scramble of fresh cheese, tomatoes, onions and chilis.
I can’t remember who ordered what that day, but masala dosa and paneer bhurji became favorites during my trip. They were delicious, comforting and affordable, and I was able to find them in most of the places where we ate.
Somewhere along that timeline I became acquainted (read: spoiled) with a home-cooked version of paneer bhurji, made by Pramila, my friend Shweta’s mom. Between Pramila, Shweta, and my friends who looked after me on my first day of school, I will forever associate this dish with comfort and hospitality.
Some days at school, a group of us would sit in a circle at lunchtime. Shweta and a few others would bring lunch from home, while the rest of us would buy lunch at the school canteen. We’d spread out our food, and the trading and sharing would begin.
It should come as no surprise that I always preferred the home cooked food, especially Shweta’s. Her mom, Pramila, made the most beautiful and delicious chapatis, stacked and folded in quarters. Shweta (one of the most generous people I’ve ever met) would insist that I try her food. I’d protest out of politeness, but her assurance that she got to eat mom’s food everyday—and would rather change things up—convinced me that it was okay to have a little.
I’d tear the chewy chapati and use it to pinch a bite of the pillowy scrambled paneer—followed by another—and another—and another. My nose would run from the hot chilis, but it was too good to stop.
Sometime during my studies, Shweta invited me and another American friend over to dinner in her home. Pramila stood at the stove the entire time, passing dish after dish over to the table. Paneer bhurji was, of course, on the menu—as were Pramila’s chapatis that I got to watch her make, firsthand. I was used to stuffing my face at family dinners back at home, but being a guest of honor at my friend’s home in India was an entirely new experience. Pramila cooked from her heart and shared her best dishes with us—making me feel comfortable and at home, even though I was on the other side of the world.
Since I’ve been back, Shweta and I have kept in touch. When I told her about my series and asked if her mom would be willing to share her paneer bhurji recipe, they both agreed with the same generous spirit they showed me 8 years ago.
Even with the recipe, I don’t think my paneer bhurji will ever come close to Pramila’s, because she’s got a touch that I just can’t match. If I ever find my way back to Mumbai, I’ll surely be paying Shweta and Pramila a visit. In the meantime, I’ll be eating this version at home, and remembering all of the hospitality and friendship that came along with it.
A special thanks to Alex (@acl.fit), Boston-based Dietetic Intern, for her work in prepping, cooking, styling and modeling in these photos.
Related Stories & Recipes
Remembering India: My First 24 Hours
Remembering India: Chicken Biryani
Remembering India: Sights, Sounds & Railway Food
Remembering India: Ghee + Thane
Remembering India: Before We Begin
$1 Grilled Cheese Party
This recipe is straight from Pramila and Shweta’s kitchen. The paneer, tomatoes, onions, chilis and masalas meld together into one unique flavor, where not a single ingredient stands out. Out of respect for Pramila, I’m presenting the recipe to you how Shweta sent it to me—grams and all. I’ve included a few notes throughout, based on my own experience of making it at home.
Pramila’s Paneer Bhurji
250g red onion, chopped*
150g paneer, crumbled**
2 medium size tomatoes, chopped
2 green chilis, finely chopped
2 tbsp oil
1/2 tsp red chili powder***
pinch of turmeric powder
salt as per taste
1/4 tsp garam masala
pinch of kasuri methi (dry fenugreek leaves)
*My own preference is to use 200g of onions—but chop them up and see what you think!
**The paneer crumbles more easily once it’s sat at room temperature for about 30 minutes, or so.
***Not to be confused with spice blend.
- Sauté the onions in 2 tablespoons oil on high flame until they are pink in color (Des’s note: about 2-3 minutes).
- Add chopped tomatoes and cook for 2-3 minutes.
- Add green chilis and crumbled paneer.
- Add all masalas (i.e., red chili powder, turmeric & salt). Mix well.
- Cook till the bhurji leaves the sides of the pan & oil is visible.
- Add garam masala, fresh coriander leaves & kasuri methi for garnish.
- Put the lid on for a minute for the flavors to be absorbed.