How Paneer Is Making A Place For Itself On South Indian Palates

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Only a decade ago, its very existence may have bordered on culinary confusion. Today, the Paneer Dosa is ubiquitous in Chennai. This, in a city that doesn’t hide its fondness for authenticity and old-world culinary tradition.

In fact, at the Mylapore branch of Saravana Bhavan — Mylapore is regarded by some as Chennai’s cultural citadel for its adherence to tradition including that of the culinary realm — platefuls of the lip-smacking delicacy keep rolling out of the kitchen. Waiters bearing four plates to five make their way to tables as they serve them up, crispness on full display and steam exiting both ends.

“For years, I’ve ordered a Masala Dosa and a Sambaar Vadai for breakfast, while sometimes picking an Idli or Ghee Roast (another Dosa preparation),” says 57-year-old R Narayanan, an employee at a nearby PSU bank, “However, there’s a unique taste that the Paneer Cheese Dosa brings with it. I thought I’d experiment one day, and I’ve been quite hooked to it ever since.” Narayanan is just one of many.

The Paneer Dosa and its variants — Paneer Cheese Dosa, Paneer Masala Dosa, and Paneer Rava Dosa to name a few — are part of Chennai’s newfound love for cottage cheese.

It’s made its way into some typically traditional South Indian dishes too: Paneer 65 (a paneer variant of Chennai’s very own Chicken 65), Gun Powder Paneer, and Chilli Paneer.

In fact, Gun Powder Paneer has turned into an Andhra favourite — roadside eateries along the Vishakatapatnam-Vizianagaram route serve them up with plenty of spice to boot. “You get it spicy or extra spicy if you’d like” you’re told when you line up to order it with the local breakfast favourite, Dibba Roti. It must come as no surprise that cottage cheese has also turned into a South Indian pub favourite: Monkey Bar’s Chennai outlet, in fact, serves up a mean Paneer Ghee Roast, adopting a flavour profile normally reserved for classical chicken preparations in the South: a bit of spice and a lot of ghee.

“There’s been a noticeable fondness for Paneer in the last couple of years as most diners have turned really health conscious since the pandemic,” says Chennai-based food blogger Dikshita Jain, “And if you’re a vegetarian, chances are you prefer paneer to potatoes since it’s a trade-off between protein and carbs.”

No doubt, choosing protein over carbohydrate — especially the carb-on-carb a Masala Dosa brings — is probably the number one health choice made by most culinary aficionados on the lookout for healthier dietary options.

That is also probably why Paneer-manufacturers have seen the business grow by leaps and bounds more recently.

Chennai-based Hatsun Agro reported a weak set of Q4 numbers on Thursday including a 56 percent decline in net profits but saw revenues from milk products grow 3.8 percent. The company is predominantly a South Indian player.

Only last year, Amul reported a 50 percent growth in Paneer sales across South India, capitalizing on a spurt in the packaged foods market in the aftermath of COVID-induced lockdowns in 2020. Chennai-based agri-tech start-up Waycool has been plotting a conscious and concerted move towards the packaged foods space, which could well feature Paneer products.

Erode-based Milky Mist has carved out a niche for itself by launching 20 packaged products through omni-channel sales, with its distinctive blue packages of paneer turning into the star of the show. The company has made clear its plans to grow in line with a Rs 75,000 crore market Pan-India that has been growing at 18 to 20 percent in the last few years, and faster still in the South according to anecdotal evidence. Individual data for states is presently unavailable, although some estimates peg Chennai’s Paneer consumption to lie in the range of 30 tonnes per day.

“Eating habits in the South have been changing over time,” says R Chandramogan, Chairman, Hatsun Agro, “While consumers have continued to enjoy eating their staples, they want to have something different every once in a while, and that’s where the market for packaged Paneer comes in.” He adds: “Our Paneer products have been experiencing a good, steady growth for the last few years; we expect them to grow at 20 to 25 percent CAGR over the next three to four years.”

Back at restaurants, the paneer dishes keep getting sent out of the kitchen. Even at South Indian food establishments with an obligatory North Indian menu, Paneer Butter Masala, Kadai Paneer and Paneer Tikka end up being classical favourites. “We serve anywhere between 200 to 250 paneer butter masalas every single day,” says Mohan, a duty manager at Apoorva Sangeetha chain of South Indian restaurants.

The verdict is clear: it doesn’t matter if there’s butter or ghee, or chilli, rice flour or the chargrill of the tandoor — Paneer has turned into a South Indian dietary favourite and how! “It doesn’t even blow my mind that the South is so fond of it now,” says Dikshita, “Paneer’s transition from a North Indian dish to a South Indian staple has been seamless.”

(Edited by : Abhishek Jha)

First Published:  IST

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