By Larissa Zimberoff/Bloomberg News
Given the current obsession with plant-based cooking, cheese might seem like a food in decline.
But curd consumption has risen 19% in the past decade, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. It’s the main catalyst of per capita dairy consumption. Last year was great for the dairy case, as sales increased $7 billion from a year earlier to $61 billion, according to Madison, Wisconsin-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association.
At Kroger Co., the second-bestselling overall product of 2020 was four-cheese Mexican blend. (Zero-calorie soft drinks were No. 1.)
Now a beloved Indian staple is making inroads in the U.S., even though it’s been around since the 1500s. Paneer is the firm cheese that’s the hero ingredient in the vegetarian dish saag paneer.
There are several reasons for the groundswell. Paneer is high in protein and fat, which makes it a favorite among those on the keto diet, a market valued at $9.5 billion in 2019. (The U.S. is the biggest market for ketogenic diets.) And because it’s got a high melting point, it keeps its shape when it’s cooked, making it a good candidate for center-of-the-plate vegetarian dishes.
Unlike many faux-meat options, however, paneer is clean-label, meaning it’s made with minimal ingredients.
There’s also increased culinary interest in its place of origin. Searches for “Indian restaurants near me” rose 350% last year on Google Trends. “Paneer maker” was up 140%.
“Indian cuisine has grown in popularity, and people have become more interested in learning to make it at home,” says Joey Wells, global senior principal for product development at Whole Foods Market Inc. Paneer sales are up, he adds: “We continue to see growth in the category overall.”
Paneer has been pushed by artisans on the East and West coasts who were dissatisfied with the options on supermarket shelves in the U.S.
In New York City, the stellar version made by Unapologetic Foods chef Chintan Pandya has raised the cheese’s profile. “The higher the fat, the better the paneer,” says Pandya, who uses a blend of milk and cream from a dairy upstate to make his light and incomprehensibly pillowy product. It took more than a year for him to create a viable version. (Supply chain issues contributed to the delay.) Now it’s a top seller at his Lower East Side restaurant, Dhamaka, where it’s grilled and topped with garam masala.
“A lot of people ask us what’s different,” Pandya says. “It’s just that we invest time and money in it.” In fact he invests so much time that, from a cost perspective, it’s on par with the amount he spends on lamb and goat.
Chefs across the U.S. have likewise become inspired. At Ghee in Miami, Niven Patel smokes the cheese and serves it with charred corn. Paneer pies are a popular option at Chicago’s Pizza With a Twist, which has locations around the country. At a recent pop-up dinner, Contra chef Fabián Von Hauske Valtierra bathed Pandya’s paneer in a wine sauce and served it with caviar.
At Aurum in Los Altos, Calif., Manish Tyagi reimagines classic palak paneer as lasagna, using slices of the cheese in place of pasta. Between the layers are sautéed spinach, ground paneer, cumin, and fenugreek leaf powder. It’s baked with shredded mozzarella and served with tomato sauce.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, two former tech employees, Jasleen and Tarush Agarwal, also have boosted paneer’s local profile. In 2019 the married couple, who worked at Facebook and the children’s platform Toca Boca, started Sach Foods, which specializes in small-batch paneer, made with organic grass-fed milk from Holstein cows.
Their product has a creamy texture that stands out from most widely available commercial versions such as Nanak, made by Canada-based Punjab Milk Foods; Amul, based in Gujarat, India; and Mother Dairy, a wholly owned subsidiary of India’s National Dairy Development Board. The Agarwals found a place for their paneer in Whole Foods after meeting regional buyers at cheese festivals in Portland, Ore., and San Francisco who said it was superior to the Gopi brand they were currently carrying.
Retailing for $8 for a 6-ounce package — in flavors ranging from plain to turmeric twist to spicy habanero — it’s now on shelves at about 200 Whole Foods and 140 Safeway stores, as well as specialty food stores.
Bay Area-based grocer Good Eggs has seen a fourfold increase in sales since launching the product in late 2019. Meherwan Irani, who owns Chai Pani in Asheville, N.C., switched to Sach paneer in 2021; since then, sales of his paneer tikka roll, made with yogurt marinated cheese that’s char-grilled and served in buttered naan, have increased more than 30%.
“Our growth is unique in the cheese world, especially during a global pandemic, when the normal ways of selling to new accounts don’t apply,” Tarush says.
As grocery store sales remain strong, the Agarwals are doing research and development on a second paneer-related product. They’re also ramping up production to five days a week — from two to three days — to start serving 1,000 stores in the first quarter of 2022.
Donna Berry, a former Kraft Heinz Co. scientist who’s now a dairy industry consultant, says sales of paneer in America can continue rising along with awareness, as in-store tastings and other events return. “It’s products like paneer that keep consumers interested in dairy,” she says. “Cheesemakers have upped their game to be competitive with plant-based innovators.”