Paneer tikka are a bright and tasty vegetarian appetizer or snack, combining chunks of mild cheese and vegetables with a spiced marinade. They're really easy to make and perfect for entertaining or any excuse.
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One thing I love about Indian cuisine is the fantastic breadth of vegetarian dishes. Whether using purely vegetables, pulses like chickpeas (as in chana masala) or versatile paneer cheese (as in paneer makhani), you'll find so much variety.
Some of that variety comes from combining different spices and different sauces. But don't be put off by thinking this means complicated or super spicy. That's not always the case.
These tasty skewers are a perfect example. I might look like a long list of ingredients, but it's as simple as scooping and mixing (OK and a little chopping too). Then after a bit of marinading time, they cook up in minutes. You can tone the spice up or down to taste without compromising flavor as well.
What does tikka mean?
"Tikka" means "small chunks" in Hindi and refers to a range of dishes from Northern India that involve cutting meat, vegetables, or in this case paneer, into chunks before marinating and grilling. What makes this style stand out is the spiced yogurt marinade that adds lots of flavor.
The dish is said to date back to the Mughal dynasty (16th - 18th century). and coincidentally (maybe), paneer is often traced back to a similar period and region. The Mughal rulers were primarily in the North of India and had close relations with neighboring Persia (modern-day Iran) and other places along the Silk Route.
Traditionally, you cook tikka skewers over a tandoor oven. Since naturally not everyone has a tandoor, you can also make them at home by either using a grill, overhead broiler or cooking them on the stove (a grill pan helps get a similar slight char effect).
Is tikka the same as tandoori?
Tandoori and tikka dishes are very similar, with the main difference being the preparation of the meat or other base ingredient. Tandoori chicken, for example, typically involved whole sections of chicken such as drumsticks, while chicken tikka is diced chunks of chicken on a skewer.
Sometimes tandoori dishes use a more oil and lemon-based marinade rather than the yogurt always used in tikka dishes. However the spices are very similar if not the same and tandoori dishes can, and often do, also include yogurt like these tandoori shrimp.
What's the difference between tikka and tikka masala?
Tikka and tikka masala share some similarities in that they typically start with the same marinade. However tikka masala instead cooks the meat (or in this case paneer) in a rich sauce rather than grilling as it is. "Masala" means sauce.
This sauce makes it into a more substantial dish. While tikka are generally an appetizer, tikka masala is typically a main, served with rice, naan or other sides.
About the spices used in this dish
The spices in this can vary from one recipe to another, but this version uses some of the most popular flavors, including fresh garlic and ginger (often found as garlic-ginger paste) and various ground spices. Some are pre-blended, helping you get a broad range of flavors more easily, with a few extra additions as well.
- Garam masala - this blend is warm and aromatic. It has a large proportion of cumin and coriander along with some fragrant spices like cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. It has become relatively widely available but you can also make your own as most of the ingredients are things you may well have. You'll find it used in many Indian recipes.
- Chaat masala - this blend is a little more salty and tangy. The name comes from the fact it's used in most chaat recipes, like papdi chaat and aloo chaat, which include tangy and spice flavors. It is less common outside India, but you should find it in Indian supermarkets. You can also buy chaat masala online and it will keep a while to use other times. It has some overlap with garam masala flavors, but a couple key differences are it typically includes black salt and mango powder which are both flavors you typically find in this dish.
- Kashmiri chili - this is a milder chili powder. It is from Kashmir in the North of India and is used in many dishes, particularly those from the North, like tandoori and tikka dishes, rogan josh and more. You can recognize it by the bright red color and almost sweet smokey smell and flavor.
- Ajwain (carom seeds) - these are another less common spice but add another distinct flavor that works well in these. The seeds are said to aid digestion and have a slightly sharp, aromatic flavor. If you can't find them or prefer, you can skip them, the flavors will still be great.
- Turmeric, coriander, garlic and ginger are hopefully more familiar since they are used in a variety of cuisines.
Tips for making paneer tikka skewers
As I mentioned (and you can see in the video) these are quick and easy to make. However it's worth keeping a few things in mind to help them turn out their best.
The marinade uses a thick yogurt - the traditional base is an Indian yogurt or "hung curd" that is very thick. This helps the mixture stick to the paneer and vegetables rather than slipping off as it cooks. Since you may not get exactly the same thing, a thick Greek yogurt is a great close alternative. Alternatively, use another plain yogurt and sit it on some cheesecloth in a strainer over a bowl in the fridge for a couple hours to drain out some of the liquid.
Take care not to break the pieces as you mix and thread them on skewers. If you can, use flat skewers so the pieces don't spin as you turn them to cook on either side. Alternatively, lay the skewers on a wire mesh over a baking sheet to allow air to circulate below and any drips to fall.
Don't cook the skewers too long or it can become chewy. Just a few minutes either side to get a slight browning is perfect. Some find homemade paneer takes on the flavors better, but it is also softer and so may crumble more easily. Use store bought or homemade as you have and prefer.
How to serve paneer tikka
These skewers are great to enjoy as an appetizer either on their own or with other savory snacks such as samosas, pakora (like cauliflower pakora) or vegetables cutlets. As with the other dishes, they go well with some green chutney (cilantro-mint chutney) on the side. To bring out the flavors, sprinkle a little chaat masala and lemon juice over the top as well.
While some festivals such as Diwali are known for sweets, you'll also often share savory snacks with guests during this time. These would be a popular choice.
Paneer tikka are easy to make and perfect to serve for parties, festivities or just because. The mix of spices add so much flavor, but with relatively little effort. So get chopping and mixing, and enjoy them soon.
Try these other tasty international finger foods:
- Chicken yakitori (Japanese chicken skewers)
- Tiropita (Greek cheese pastries)
- Shrimp shumai (Chinese shrimp dumplings)
- Plus get more appetizer recipes and Indian recipes in the archives.
- 5 oz paneer cut into roughly 1 in/2.5cm cubes
- ½ onion
- ½ pepper red, green or a mix of both
- ¼ cup Greek yogurt
- 1 teaspoon garlic crushed/finely grated
- 1 teaspoon ginger finely grated
- ½ teaspoon kashmiri chili or sweet paprika for non-spicy
- ½ teaspoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon garam masala
- ½ teaspoon chaat masala
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric
- ¼ teaspoon ajwain carom seeds, ground - optional
- ½ tablespoon lemon juice
- ½ tablespoon oil mustard oil, if possible, otherwise vegetable oil
- some avocado/vegetable oil spray for cooking
- Cut the paneer into even-sized cubes, around 1 in/2.5cm thick each way (or slightly bigger). Cut the onion and pepper into pieces roughly the same size.
- Mix together all of the marinade ingredients - yogurt, spices, lemon juice and oil - in a medium bowl. Add the onion and pepper chunks and mix everything together. Add the cubes of paneer and carefully toss them with everything else so that all of the pieces are coated with the marinade. Spread it over the sides as needed to help them be coated relatively evenly.
- Cover the bowl and refrigerate for around an hour, or a little longer. Meanwhile, if using wooden skewers, soak them for at least 10 minutes to help avoid them burning during cooking.
- After marinading, thread the onion, pepper and paneer pieces onto skewers, alternating the paneer with vegetable slices in between. Leave a slight gap between all the pieces to help them cook evenly and take care not to break the paneer.
- Preheat either a grill or the broiler (overhead grill) in the oven to a relatively high heat. Cook the skewers for around 3 - 4 minutes on each side until the marinade dries into a slight crust and gently chars. Take care not to over-cook.
- You can serve with a little lemon and additional sprinkle of chaat masala on the side and green chutney (cilantro mint chutney) for dipping.
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I first shared the recipe for Paneer Tikka on Curious Cuisiniere where I am a contributor.