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History of : Paneer

Paneer has come to be a staple of Indian cuisine, used in dishes from rich curries like mattar paneer to sweet treats like Ras Malai. The origins are hotly contested, with creation being traced back to Ancient Indian, Persian and Portuguese influences.

A Veda page from the Atharvaveda.

Ancient Indian Origins

Recent stable isotope analysis of pottery shards from the Indus Valley CivIlisation (lands that now make up present day India and Pakistan) from ~5000 years ago show evidence of dairy as a principle component of their diet. However, due to the length of time elapsed, the evidence on how and why dairy was so integral is difficult to piece together and whether this resembles present day paneer is another question altogether... Vedic texts, a large body of ancient Indian text, written from 1500-1200 BCE has only one mention to something which could be considered cheese: Dadhanvat which can either be translated as 'an abundance of curds' or cheese. During this time, Aryan migration into Northern India occurred from Central Europe and the Middle East. The Aryans brought with them the belief that curdling cow's milk was taboo. To curdle the milk was to spoil it, and therefore it remained a taboo for many centuries.

The first description of paneer as it might be known today was during the Kusana and Saka Satavahana periods (75–300AD). Here it is only referred to as a solid mass, which was created using heated milk and curd - similar to the current method of creating paneer.

A page from Nimmatnama-i-Nasiruddin-Shahi (c. 1500) a medieval cookbook. Here the process of making 'Kheer' a type of rice pudding, is described

Persian Origins

During the 16th Century, and particularly the Mughal Empire, it is postulated that Persian and Afghan rulers introduced cheese production and paneer into India. In fact, the Persian word for cheese is Panir (پنیر) and comes from old Iranian. However, the primary production of cheese in Persian countries is based on goat or sheep rennet, while paneer is made with an acid coagulant and hot milk. Perhaps, northern India only adopted the name paneer for a pre-existing food type and the practice of cheese making already pre-dated the introduction of the adopted Persian dialect. On the other hand, paneer is still only eaten largely in the northern parts of India. Maybe this is a result of Persian introduction, or an earlier establishment by Aryan communities.

Portuguese Origins

In the 17th century, Portugal had claimed India as the Portuguese eastern empire with the capital as Goa, in Europe, this was widely referred to as "the Rome of the East". It is thought that the Portuguese introduced the technique of breaking milk with acid in Bengal during this period.

Anonymous 16th century Portuguese illustrations from the Códice Casanatense. Left: land workers from the Sultanate of Gujarat, right: "Single Christian women of India" wearing European fashion, and a Portuguese nobleman, presumably proposing marriage.

Therefore, Portuguese techniques to make their own cheeses such as queijos frescos, may have influenced the creation of Indian cheeses such as paneer and chenna at this time. The fresh curds of chenna are largely seen in North-eastern areas of the country where they are used to make traditional Bengali sweets, while the pressed variety of paneer is more popular in northern India which has more of a Central Asian influence. Portuguese techniques may have only have a localised influence on the method to make chenna, but it is disputable as to whether this technique was adopted across the country.

Preparation of Paneer

Perhaps the origin of paneer as it is known today may never be clear, but can instead be contributed to an amalgamation of techniques and influences over the more than 5000 year history of dairy products in India. What is not up for debate is that paneer as we know it today is a delicious result!

Sources and further reading


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