The best paneer I’ve ever had was at Manek Chowk, a crowded vegetarian street food market in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India. In between fried pakoras and pineapple cheese sandwiches, I found skewers of paneer tikka cooking over glowing, red hot charcoal. Large chunks of paneer were marinated in spicy, garlicky yogurt and skewered with pieces of tomatoes and bell peppers. The paneer turned crispy and caramelized on the outside, while the inside was moist and milky. It was so good, I elbowed my way back twice for more.
If you’re not familiar, paneer is a fresh, non-melting cheese popular on the Indian subcontinent. It’s fried into pakoras, cooked in saucy dishes like saag paneer and turned into desserts like syrupy rasgulla. I love that paneer is a chameleon, constantly reinventing itself. But up until recently good paneer didn’t exist in the U.S. unless you made it yourself. It’s mostly mass produced, with a rubbery texture and enough preservatives for a six-month shelf life. The widely available Nanak paneer from Canada, for example, has no flavor, to the point where it makes you doubt it contains dairy. It made me embarrassed on India’s behalf.
That’s why Oakland’s Sach Foods’ organic, small-batch paneer is such a creamy revelation. Founders and husband-wife team Tarush and Jasleen Agarwal are trying to change the paneer narrative. “Nothing creative has been done by other makers in what feels like decades,” Tarush Agarwal explains. “Our approach is different.” By offering a handmade product using minimal, high-quality ingredients starting with organic grass-fed Jersey milk, they’re creating a new market for high-end paneer while evolving the concept with flavored paneer.
Paneer typically has no flavor, not even salt, and it’s flavored by whatever it cooks in. But Jasleen Agarwal grew up in New Delhi eating it fresh with salt and pepper, so their paneer is ready to eat. It’s salted and comes in flavors like habanero and turmeric.
Paneer is traditionally made by curdling buffalo milk with an acid (lemon juice, vinegar or yogurt), then straining and pressing the curds for a few hours. The finished cheese can be cut into chunks or slabs and won’t melt at high temperatures. There are regional variations, like soft Parsi topli paneer and Surti paneer, which are both set with rennet, but the firm style popular in Punjab is the most well-known.
No one agrees on paneer’s origins. For a long time in India, it was even considered taboo to split the milk of a holy cow. Historian K.T. Achaya believes that paneer was introduced by the Portuguese in the 1500s, along with chhena, paneer’s softer cousin. Others believe it came earlier from Iranian and Afghani rulers (the word paneer has Persian origins). But chef and cheese consultant Aditya Raghavan thinks paneer has an even longer history. He found Indian texts that mention cheeselike products made by heating milk and yogurt from the Kushan period (second century, B.C.).
Growing up, Jasleen and Tarush (who grew up in Jamshedpur, a city in eastern India) remember paneer was either made at home or purchased from neighborhood stores that specialized in it, and it was only good for a few days. Today, a lot of paneer in India is made with a mix of buffalo and less-expensive cow’s milk. There is also mass-produced paneer from brands like Amul and Mother Dairy.
In the U.S., paneer is typically made from cow’s milk, citric acid and thickening agents. According to Amod Chopra, the owner of Vik’s Chaat and Market in Berkeley, it doesn’t come close to the richness and chewiness of buffalo milk paneer made in India.
Vik’s started in 1987, and Chopra remembers first seeing packaged paneer being sold in the U.S. by an East Coast dairy in the 1980s. When Vik’s expanded into a restaurant in 1989, it started making its own paneer with cow’s milk and lemon juice (which it still does). Chopra says the market first sold extra paneer from the restaurant, and that selling homemade paneer was common for small Indian markets at the time. As Vik’s grew bigger, it sold packaged paneer, and a few years ago it started importing frozen buffalo milk paneer from India and selling it under the Vik’s label.
Despite the 300,000 Indian Americans in the Bay Area, it’s difficult to find fresh paneer today. Around 2005, Cowgirl Creamery produced a Parsi-style cow’s milk paneer (soft and spreadable) for a few years using a recipe by cookbook writer Niloufer Ichaporia King.
One of the reasons the Agarwals ended up founding Sach Foods was because as vegetarians, they both needed high-protein snacks. Tarush is a marathon runner, and at the time, Jasleen was doing the keto diet. They loved eating paneer in India, but stopped in the U.S. because the quality was terrible. “Paneer should be soft and creamy,” Jasleen says, “but here I can’t snack on it because it’s hard and needs to sit in hot water to make it softer. It’s just not the same product.”
She started making her own paneer at home and experimenting with flavors like Thai curry, mint chutney and basil-jalapeño. She joined a commercial kitchen in 2018, and after getting great feedback, she and Tarush launched Sach Foods (sach means honest in Hindi) in October 2018. As first-generation immigrants with no food business background and no financial backing, they are making it work through self-funding, keeping their day jobs in the tech sector and renting out part of their home on Airbnb and their car on Getaround.
It hasn’t been easy. They had to convince potential manufacturers of their product that there was a market for high-end paneer when nothing like it existed. At pop-ups and food demos, they stretch the limit of what Americans think paneer can do. Slices of paneer replaced the bread in bruschetta, and they made a Baja taco with battered and fried turmeric paneer, cabbage slaw and cilantro crema. On their website and Instagram page, you’ll see saag paneer reinvented as toast, their habanero flavor paneer sliced, battered and fried into “fries,” their mint chutney flavor used as protein in a vegetarian Thai papaya salad, or grilled like a burger and served in a bun with chile-avocado crema.
“Consumers are familiar with the concept of a cheese board, but not with paneer,” Tarush says. “Our goal is to position it as modern, innovative … with diverse applications.”
Where to find Sach Foods paneer
Sach Foods sells its cheese on its website, https://sachfoods.com/collections/summer-fresh, $7.99 each plus shipping. Original flavor, turmeric twist and spicy habanero are currently available.
Also available at Bi-Rite Market’s 18th Street and Divisadero locations, Gus’s Community Market and Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco; the Cheese Board, Berkeley Bowl and Berkeley Bowl West in Berkeley; Market Hall and Piedmont Grocery in Oakland; Alameda Natural Grocery in Alameda; Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax and Mill Valley; Sigona’s Farmers Market in Redwood City and Palo Alto; and Bianchini’s Market in San Carlos and Portola Valley.
The paneer is now available in 50 stores in the Bay Area and Los Angeles and several restaurants, including August 1 Five, Rooh and Greens. In the future, they hope to sell paneer products like burger patties or fries and to introduce new flavors such as rose and cardamom, which would work well with desserts.
Their business took a hit with the COVID-19 pandemic as their restaurant partners closed down, but one thing that helped was having multiple distribution channels, including direct to customers; online sales actually increased fifteenfold between January and April.
The Agarwals know they couldn’t have made it this far without those first stores and restaurants that took a chance on them, many of which are now getting food to the community while compromising their own health.
“It’s an incredible and very powerful movement, and those are the same partners who have helped us as entrepreneurs,” Tarush says. “We are so grateful to our community.”