As a kid, I was a notoriously picky eater, though not in the ways you might expect. A lot of kids struggle with picky eating; some despise eggplant, while others refuse to go anywhere near mushrooms.
My problem, though, was that I often disliked eating the same dish multiple times. But there was one dish I never got sick of which was Matar Paneer. It didn't matter whether my mom made it or it came from our local restaurant—I always looked forward to eating the tangy, spiced tomato gravy paired with creamy paneer.
During the pandemic, I ordered Matar Paneer from our favorite Indian restaurant one too many times before I decided I should try my hand at recreating the dish. In the US, most restaurant versions include a creamy base of spices, aromatics, tomatoes, cashews, and cream (or yogurt) blended into a smooth sauce.
The paneer and peas simmer in the sauce for just a few minutes until ready to serve. When developing this recipe, I wanted to simplify the dish to accommodate a weeknight schedule while maintaining all of the same flavors I loved growing up.
What is Matar Paneer?
Matar Paneer translates to "peas paneer" in Hindi, referring to a traditional dish in North India of peas and paneer (a type of soft Indian cheese) simmered in a spiced tomato sauce.
Some variations of the dish add dairy, like cream or yogurt, while others include additional vegetables, such as potatoes. My mom's version, for example, omitted dairy for a lighter, everyday meal, but if we had guests over, for a party or special occasion, we would dress it up with a bit of cream. Because of its mild spice flavor, Matar Paneer is often enjoyed by adults and kids alike.
What is Paneer?
Paneer is a fresh cheese made from buffalo milk or cow's milk. It is mild in flavor with a soft texture. In many Indian meals, paneer functions as a protein and is often added into curries and gravies.
You can purchase paneer at most supermarkets or Indian grocery stores. It comes in a white, firm block, and you usually cut it up into cubes before cooking. For store-bought brands, I highly recommend Sach Foods, as it has one of the freshest flavors with a soft texture. Gopi Paneer is another solid brand that you can buy.
How to Cook with Paneer
Most store-bought brands, with the exception of Sach Foods paneer, will require you to soak the cheese in warm water to soften properly before use. If you skip the soaking, the paneer will still be edible, but it might have a chewier, tougher texture. To soak your paneer, simply cut it up into cubes and place it in a bowl in warm water for at least 15 minutes.
Though it can be consumed raw, most dishes utilize cooked paneer. You can first deep-fry paneer, then simmer it in your sauce to yield a crispy exterior and slightly chewy interior. Or, you can add the raw cubes directly into a sauce for the softest texture.
Both methods work well, but with this recipe, I decided to cook the paneer directly in the sauce for a faster, cozier weeknight meal. Paneer only takes a couple of minutes to soften and cook through. Be careful not to overcook it, as it can become rubbery. When cooked properly, paneer should take on a soft texture with a very subtle chew.
Spices Used in Matar Paneer
There are a few essential spices in Matar Paneer, and I've included tips for sourcing the ingredients as needed.
- Whole cardamom and cloves: Cardamom and cloves are two earthy, warming spices that help bring a sweet flavor to the dish. Using whole spices helps infuse the oil to provide more complexity. You should be able to find these spices at most major grocery stores.
- Garam masala: Garam masala is a ground powder made of several different warming spices. You can make your own or purchase a premade blend at an Indian grocery store; some major grocery stores also supply it.
- Chili powder: Kashmiri chili powder (also known as Kashmiri lal mirch) brings a beautiful red hue and mild flavor to Indian dishes, and it can be found at Indian grocery stores. In a pinch, you can substitute a 50/50 mix of cayenne and paprika (unsmoked). If you don't like heat, you can omit this ingredient all together.
- Ground coriander and cumin: Another set of warming spices, ground coriander and cumin bring aromatic savory notes to the dish. Find them at any major grocery store.
- Dried fenugreek leaves: Dried fenugreek leaves (also known as kasuri methi) brings a special flavor to Indian dishes. Fenugreek is earthy and nutty, with a hint of sweetness reminiscent of maple syrup. You can find them at Indian grocery stores or purchase online at the Spice House. Can't source them? Substitute by using 1/4 teaspoon of ground fenugreek instead or, omit altogether (though the flavor of the dish will be slightly different, you can still make a tasty dish).
Tips and Tricks for Matar Paneer
For a speedy, yet flavorful matar paneer, you will want to use these quick tricks to most efficiently get dinner on the table.
- Save time prepping this recipe: I recommend soaking the paneer and measuring out and chopping the ingredients for the onion-tomato puree first. Then, while the onions are cooking, measure out and prep the rest of the ingredients to efficiently save time.
- Chill your tomatoes: Most stand blenders cannot handle hot liquids, so make sure to keep the canned tomatoes in the fridge for as long as you can prior to blending to bring down the temperature of the hot onions.
- Thicken the sauce to the right consistency: Don't rush simmering the tomato sauce. If you find that it's too liquidy, continue to simmer until it reaches the desired consistency.
- Adjust spices as needed: Spices vary in quality and freshness, so you may need to add more of a particular spice to match your taste preferences.
Serve this Matar Paneer with roti, paratha, naan, rice, and a side of raita. If you don't have time to make homemade bread, there are a variety of frozen naan and parathas you can purchase at Indian grocery stores or international markets.
More Indian Weeknight Recipes
Most store-bought brands, with the exception of Sach Foods paneer, will require you to soak the cheese in warm water to soften properly before use. If you skip the soaking, the paneer will still be edible, but it might have a chewier, tougher texture.
To soak your paneer, simply cut it up into 3/4-inch cubes and place it in a bowl in warm water for at least 15 minutes.
1 cup (8 ounces) canned whole peeled tomatoes
3 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 tablespoon ginger, peeled and minced (from about a 1-inch piece)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small red onion, diced
2 whole cardamom pods
2 cloves whole
1 teaspoon garam masala
1/4 teaspoon mild chili powder, such as Kashmiri chili powder
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 cup water, plus more if needed
2 teaspoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons heavy cream
3/4 cup (4 ounces) frozen peas
8 ounces paneer, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1/2 teaspoon dried fenugreek
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro, chopped
Refrigerate the tomatoes:
In a medium bowl, measure out 8 ounces of canned tomatoes and place in the fridge. Save any extra canned liquid for another use. If using store-bought paneer, soak following the recipe note instructions while you prepare the tomato onion puree.
Sauté the aromatics:
In a medium Dutch oven or a large skillet, over medium-low heat, add 1 tablespoon oil, ginger, and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the ginger and garlic are aromatic and lightly golden brown, about 2 minutes.
Increase heat to medium, then add the onions, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and golden brown, 6 to 7 minutes. The brown caramelization on the onions adds flavor here, so don’t be afraid to increase the heat if necessary.
If you notice the onions are browning too quickly or sticking to the pan, you can add a tablespoon of water to scrape up any bits at the bottom, using a wooden spoon.
Blend the tomato onion into a puree:
Turn the heat off and transfer the onion mixture to a blender carafe. Remove the tomatoes from the fridge and add them into the blender.
Check that the mixture's temperature is no warmer than lukewarm (otherwise, you will need to let it cool to room temperature for about an additional 5 minutes before blending).
Blend on high for about 1 minute until the mixture is a thick, homogeneous puree. Set aside.
Make the sauce:
Wipe the Dutch oven or skillet clean using a clean kitchen towel or paper towels. Heat to medium and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, cardamom, and cloves.
Once they begin to sizzle, stir in the pureed sauce, garam masala, chili powder, coriander, cumin, and salt. Cook, until the sauce thickens and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan, about 5 minutes.
Add 1 cup of water and maple syrup and stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil and let simmer, uncovered, on medium heat for an additional 5 minutes. The sauce should not appear watery and have a similar thickness to marinara sauce.
Cook the peas and paneer:
Add the peas and cook, until just warmed through, about 1 minute. Stir in the cream and paneer. Cook on low heat for 1 minute until the sauce resembles a deep orange color and the peas and paneer are distributed throughout the liquid.
Finish dish and serve:
Taste and season the sauce with additional salt as needed. Remove the whole cardamom and cloves if desired. Crush the dried fenugreek leaves with your hands as you sprinkle them into the pan.
Garnish with cilantro. Serve hot with roti, naan, and/or rice.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 32g||41%|
|Saturated Fat 11g||56%|
|Total Carbohydrate 59g||22%|
|Dietary Fiber 5g||17%|
|Total Sugars 10g|
|Vitamin C 12mg||62%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|