It Wouldn’t Be Thanksgiving Without a Large Bowl of Matar Paneer on My Table

updated Oct 1, 2022
Matar Paneer

Matar paneer is the definition of a party dish. It’s the sort of thing that you can serve to anyone—it looks really pretty and is always a crowd-pleaser.

Serves4

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Credit: Brittany Conerly

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There is no showstopping centerpiece dish in my family’s Thanksgiving recipes. Not a turkey, not a chicken, not even a tofurkey. I’ve always found this need for a headlining meat dish peppered with sides to be a very Western construct.

In my parents’ house, where we enjoy a mostly Indian feast for 30-plus people each Thanksgiving, there is no such thing as a “side” or a “main.” Every dish — from the chhole to the aloo gobhi — is a star, and meant to be eaten on the same plate, intermixed, with the leftover sauce sopped up with rice or puri. 

But if I were to pick the dish that feels the most showstopping to me, the one that I most look forward to every year, it would have to be matar paneer. Matar paneer — a North Indian dish of squishy cubes of paneer simmered with peas, tomatoes, and heady spices like cardamom and coriander — is not something my mom, the main cook in our family, makes on a random weeknight meal.

In our house, it is squarely special-occasion, we’re-having-people-over food. Matar paneer isn’t an intensely challenging dish to make — it just requires a little extra effort (and by that I simply mean more than three spices, and you have to blend the sauce) than my average meal. Which makes it the perfect party food: looks fancy, tastes complex, yet not hard to make. 

My mom didn’t grow up eating matar paneer — her mother, who was never big into cooking, deemed it too complicated. My mom instead made the dish for the first time when my sister and I were teenagers, reverse engineering it through memories of eating some at weddings. We all fell in love with matar paneer instantly. The paneer was so fun to chew, and it tasted so good draped in this tart, aromatic sauce, punctuated by sweet peas.

Also, what’s not to like about tomatoes and cheese? It became the go-to meal when we were entertaining for people whose taste preferences we weren’t sure about (read: white people). Matar paneer was appealing to all. I grew especially fond of my mom’s take on the dish, which is heavy on the spices, and comforting and nourishing without weighing you down.

A lot of versions involve deep frying the paneer and adding cream. My mom skipped those steps out of a desire both to streamline the recipe and make it a little less rich — the result is that you can really taste the spices, the freshness of the peas, the milkiness of the paneer.

Her other trick is to make the matar paneer first thing in the morning. The longer it sits, the more the spices have time to mingle, deepening the flavor of the dish by the time it gets served in the evening.  

Credit: Brittany Conerly

My mom first decided to cook a big meal on Thanksgiving around 2003 or so — a few years earlier, we had moved into a house with a formal dining room that we had barely used. And as everyone in the extended family was getting older, it was becoming harder to coordinate time for all of us to gather. Thanksgiving, we decided, would be the non-negotiable annual get-together. And matar paneer was the first dish my mom put on the menu. 

Three years ago, when I made an initial list of recipes for my cookbook, Indian-ish, matar paneer was one of the first that I wrote down. I moved home to Dallas for a month to test recipes, and I saved matar paneer for the end, worried that I wasn’t going to be able to re-create my mom’s version.

This recipe had more ingredients and steps than most of her other ones, and it was such an iconic part of our family’s food canon. I felt a lot of pressure. I wanted to know that I could make it successfully. 

But the recipe — expertly written by my mom, I may add — was straightforward, yielding spectacular results: Sauté your spices and alliums, add tomatoes, blend into gravy, add a few more spices, fold in fresh or frozen peas and paneer. Like most of my mom’s cooking, it was foolproof, even if you played fast and loose with the instructions — a little more cardamom here, one fewer tomato, one more onion.

I have since made matar paneer in my own kitchen in Brooklyn countless times, and — as with anything I cook with my own two hands and none of her assistance — my mom never fails to be surprised that I can pull it off so seamlessly. 

This year’s Thanksgiving will look very different. There won’t be 30 people, and the spread won’t be nearly as bountiful. But even if we are just celebrating with immediate family, and we have to scale down the menu, no matter what, there will be a large bowl of matar paneer on the table. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving — or any Krishna celebration — without it.

Matar Paneer

Matar paneer is the definition of a party dish. It’s the sort of thing that you can serve to anyone—it looks really pretty and is always a crowd-pleaser.

Serves 4

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup

    plus 2 tablespoons ghee or olive oil, divided

  • 4

    green cardamom pods, or 1 teaspoon ground cardamom (freshly ground is best)

  • 2 tablespoons

    coriander seeds

  • 1

    small yellow onion, roughly chopped

  • 1 tablespoon

    roughly chopped fresh ginger

  • 1

    small Indian green chile or serrano chile, halved lengthwise and stem removed

  • 7

    medium Roma tomatoes, roughly chopped

  • 1 teaspoon

    cumin seeds

  • 2

    bay leaves

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    ground turmeric

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    asafetida (optional, but really great)

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    kosher salt, plus more if needed

  • 8 ounces

    paneer, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (1 cup; see Recipe Notes)

  • 1 cup

    fresh or frozen shelled sweet peas

  • 1/2 cup

    chopped fresh cilantro (stems and leaves), for garnish

Instructions

  1. In a large skillet over medium heat, warm 1/4 cup of the ghee. Add the cardamom and coriander and cook, stirring, for about 1 minute, until they have lightly browned. Stir in the onion, ginger, and chile and cook until the onion is translucent, 5 to 6 minutes. Increase the heat to high, add the tomatoes, and cook, stirring, until the tomatoes are wilted, 5 to 6 minutes more. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

  2. Transfer the cooled tomato mixture to a blender and blend into a chunky sauce—it should resemble baby food. If the mixture isn’t blending well, add a few drops of water to get it going. Set the sauce aside.

  3. In the same pan over medium-high heat, warm the remaining 2 tablespoons ghee. Add the cumin seeds and cook until they turn a medium shade of brown, about 1 minute max. Reduce the heat to low and add the bay leaves, turmeric, and asafetida (if using). Pour the sauce into the pan, add the salt, and mix well. Add the paneer, peas, and 1 cup water, cover, and cook for 10 minutes, or until the peas are warmed through and have nicely comingled with the paneer and sauce. Taste and adjust the salt, if needed. Garnish with the cilantro.

Recipe Notes

Paneer: As soon as you cube the paneer, put it in warm water until you are ready to cook it—this will make sure it doesn’t dry out. Just be sure to drain it before adding it to the pan.

Excerpted from INDIAN-ISH: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family © 2019 by Priya Krishna with Ritu Krishna. Photography © 2019 by Mackenzie Kelley. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

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