Sunday, February 18, 2007


I imagine most everyone has had the experience of discovering a word or phrase for the first time and then immediately finding it in use in books, magazine articles and party conversations. Some of the time it really is brand new and some of the time it just didn't get remembered quite right. A related phenomenon is believing that one basically knows all the contexts and associations only to discover and keep discovering that it is much more prevalent than one imagined.

That is what happened with paneer.

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I have been eating paneer dishes for as long as I have been eating Indian food. Most often as Saag or Palak Paneer. (These names are more or less interchangeable around here. पालक pālak is spinach specifically; साग sāg is various similar leafy vegetables, and so could include ones like mustard greens. But it never seems to in restaurants. Those are the common spellings, despite the inconsistent treatment of the long vowel.)

Commercial paneer is available in the cheese aisle at the regular supermarket these days. But it is fun and not at all hard to make and we used to do it all the time when we did more cooking. Boil milk. Add lemon juice. Strain in cheesecloth. Press under a weight.

And I have long known more or less what the Wikipedia and OED say, that paneer comes from Persian. With that much protein, it is the food of wealthy vegetarians. Shahi Paneer Korma is a Mughal court dish. (शाही shāhī 'royal' from Persian شاه shāh 'king; Shah' from Old Persian xšāyaθiya — as in 𐎠𐎭𐎶𐏐𐎭𐎠𐎼𐎹𐎺𐎢𐏁𐏐𐎧𐏁𐎠𐎹𐎰𐎡𐎹𐏐𐎺𐏀𐎼𐎣𐏐𐎧𐏁𐎠𐎹𐎰𐎡𐎹𐏐𐎧𐏁𐎠𐎹𐎰𐎡𐎹𐎠𐎴𐎠𐎶𐏐 adam Dārayavauš xšāyaθiya vazạrka xšāyaθiya xšāyaθiyānām 'I am Darius, great king, king of kings' — cognate with Sanskrit क्षि kṣi 'to rule' whence क्षत्रिय kṣatriya the Kshatriya warrior caste. कोर्मा kormā from Turkish korma from a Turkish root *KAgur meaning some way of cooking.)

But I never managed to extend this much in space, time or semantics.

پنیر panīr is the regular Persian word for 'cheese', though I don't recall ever seeing a dish with that in the name at a Persian restaurant. Of course there are simple traditional cheeses (suitable for political photo-ops — cf. this), but in the modern cosmopolitan environment, it's just as likely to be pizza topping or Swiss Cheese. This point was driven home while looking through آموزش آشپزی گياهی Amuzash-i ashpazi-i giyahi 'Instruction in Cooking Vegetables'. There is a recipe for پنیر كُورد panīr kūrd (Curd Cheese), including that English gloss. The recipe is more or less the one I gave above for paneer. (Well, it calls for لیمو ترش līmū-tursh 'sour lemon', which might well be 'lime'. The distinction between these two citrus is by no means firm in any language.) An English word is borrowed to qualify a home-made پنیر panīr for modern Iranian vegetarians that American or British home cooks might well have called paneer, since Indian-style home cooking is a more popular import than Persian-style. (I imagine Jamie Oliver has a recipe for paneer on one of his shows or in one of his books.)

This has me paying closer attention.

Reading The Lake Regions of Central Africa, Burton of course has much to say about the native cuisine. But in particular for this topic, he mentions (p. 52),

The mutunguja (the Puneeria coagulans of Dr. Stocks,) a solanaceous plant, called … by the Baloch panír, or cheese, from the effect of the juice in curdling milk, …
and again (p. 464-5),
Milk is held in high esteem … mtindi (curded milk), the laban of Arabia, and the Indian dahi. … [T]hey consider cheese a miracle, and use against it their stock denunciation, the danger of bewitching cattle. The fresh produce, moreover, has few charms as a poculent among barbarous and milk-drinking races … On the other hand, the curded milk is every where a favorite … [They] do not … make their dahi …, like the Arabs, with kid's rennet, nor like the Baloch with the solanaceous plant called panir.

Much of this is the usual Victorian racism, though the notion of milk-drinking races survives a bit in the conclusion that a difference between cheese and tofu cultures is genetic lactose intolerance in Asia. The observation here is that there is a plant called panīr used as a vegetable rennet. Vegetable rennet is important to lacto-ovo vegetarians. It can be tricky to discover how the cheese in prepared cheese foods was made and the conservative assumption always has to be that “enzymes” means animal rennet. Commercial vegetarian rennet is made from molds, but there are plant alternatives.

I recently found a copy of Souvenir of the XVth World Vegetarian Congress, India, 1957 in an online used bookstore. But it seems to have gotten lost in transit. In trying to track down another copy (and not succeeding), I discovered that most of it has been scanned or transcribed online. One of the tables is "BEST" PROTEIN OR BODY-BUILDERS TABLE (makes me think of Jack LaLanne), which has a footnote mentioning, "The Imperial Dairy Institute Bangalore, discovered a vegetable rennet in the Withania Coagulanas berry, but this not in use commercially." (Typos probably only in the website transcription.) More on this plant (Withania coagulans) can be found in this notice, which references this report.

Still not much of a stretch in meaning.

Then over the weekend we went to the Armenian markets in Watertown, to get some tahini bread for my wife's breakfast and because the selection of vegetarian items increases as lent approaches. (The only Armenian vegetarian cookbook in WorldCat is a Lenten cookbook.) Looking through the cheeses, there was Armenian String Cheese and Piknik White Cheese. And for the first time I paid attention to these being labeled “ՀԻՒՍՈՒԱԾ ՊԱՆԻՐ” hiwsuac panir and “Փիքնիկ-ի Պանիր” p'iknik-i panir. պանիր panir is 'cheese'. And then the equally obvious connection that all the Turkish cheeses there labeled “peynir” or “peyniri.” (The vegetarian choices among the “Turkish Pizzas (Pideler)” at the local Turkish restaurant are both Peynirli Pide 'cheese pita'. I just didn't make these connections.)

Of course the dictionary confirms that պանիր panir and peynir are the basic words for cheese. The Turkish dictionary offers a proverb,

peynir ekmek, hazır yemek. 'cheese bread, ready food' "One can always make a meal of bread and cheese alone."
And the Armenian Proverbs Wikiquote page another,
Որտեղ հաց, այնտեղ կաց:
Որտեղ պանիր, այնտեղ բանիր:
Vortegh hats, ayntegh kats.
Vortegh panir, ayntegh banir.

Wherever there's bread, stay there.
Wherever there's cheese, work there.
This second one also shows a problem with Armenian transliteration. Պ is [b] in Western Armenian, so one is just as likely to encounter banir for պանիր. Absent enough context, that might be another word.

Now I need to look into the origin some more.

As now expected, it is pretty widespread in Northwestern Asia. Hindi पनीर panīr; Urdu, Persian پنیر panīr; Marathi पनेर panēra; Punjabi ਪਨੀਰ panīr; Bengali পনির ponir; Balochi phaner (N) or panere (S); Pashto پنېر paner; Kurdish penîr or په‌نیر  phenir; Azerbaijani pendir; Turkish peynir; Turkmen peýnir or пейнир peĭnir; Armenian պանիր panir.

An important word with an interesting distribution like this invites various fanciful origin theories. So it does not take much effort to find sci.lang posts proposing (and correcting) the idea that peynir is one of a number of Turkic words in Indic languages. Or a book claiming that panir is named after the Panis of the Ṛg-Veda who first made it.

This page says that panir is mentioned in the Bhagavata-purana (भागवत पुराण). Even ignoring the traditional date for the Puranas of several millenia BCE, a more conservative one of the tenth century might be significant. But all that really seems to be there is various older milk-derived products, दधि dadhi 'curds; yogurt' — the dahi quoted above, क्षीर kṣīra 'thickened milk' and घृत gṛta 'ghee'; and cooking पयस् payas 'milk' to make them. For instance, in Chapter 10, so important to Kṛṣṇa devotees,

गोपाः परस्परं हृष्टा दधिक्षीरघृताम्बुभिः आसिञ्चन्तो विलिम्पन्तो नवनीतैश्च चिक्षिपुः
gopāḥ parasparaṃ hṛṣṭā dadhi-kṣīra-ghṛtāmbubhiḥ āsiñcanto vilimpanto navanītaiś ca cikṣipuḥ (10.5.14)
In gladness, the cowherd men enjoyed the great festival by splashing one another's bodies with a mixture of curd, condensed milk, butter and water. They threw butter on one another and smeared it on one another's bodies. (tr. Bhaktivedanta)
उत्तार्य गोपी सुशृतं पयः पुनः प्रविश्य संदृश्य च दध्यमत्रकम भग्नं विलोक्य स्वसुतस्य कर्म तज्जहास तं चापि न तत्र पश्यती
uttārya gopī suśṛtaṃ payaḥ punaḥ praviśya saṃdṛśya ca dadhy-amatrakam bhagnaṃ vilokya sva-sutasya karma taj jahāsa taṃ cāpi na tatra paśyatī (10.9.7)
Mother Yaśodā, after taking down the hot milk from the oven, returned to the churning spot, and when she saw that the container of yogurt was broken and that Kṛṣṇa was not present, she concluded that the breaking of the pot was the work of Kṛṣṇa. (tr. Bhaktivedanta)

It's possible, maybe even likely, that something like paneer was within the intended description of 'curds'. But there's no sign of the word paneer yet. So a Persian origin remains.

Panīr is present in Pahlavi. There is no Unicode support for the script yet, but here is a poem containing pnylpnyl twice.

Attention to Persian etymology appears to have some gaps. Garnik Asatrian (Գառնիկ Ասատրյան), the head of Iranian Studies at Yerevan State University is working on An Etymological Dictionary of the Persian Language, which makes sense since there are lots of early connections between Persian and Armenian. The Этимологический словарь иранских языков Etimologicheskij slovar’ iranskikh jazykov 'Etymological Dictionary of the Iranian Languages', which covers a wider scope of languages, has published two fascicles so far, a-ā and b-d. In the meantime, the standard works are still by Paul Horn from the 1890s, Grundriss der Neupersischen Etymologie and Persische Studien. These have even been translated into Persian and are still in print as آساس اشتقاق فارسي Āsās-i ishtiqāq-i Fārsī.

Grundriss section 163 (p. 289) is *pēm 'milk'. This gives Avestan payah-, cognate with Sanskrit पयस् payas quoted above, and already missing in Pahlavi. پینو pīnū is 'sour milk' and so پنیر panīr 'cheese' and the related forms in Pahlavi, Kurdish, Pashto, Balochi, etc. Studien adds (p. 140. n. 1) Armenian պանիր panir from the 5th century.

Through the PIE root *peiƏ, a couple more 'milk' words are related, Lithuanian píenas and Latvian piẽns. The more general sense of the root is 'be fat'. Some of the descendants of the root that make it into English are thus fat, pituitary, and Irish.

Now I have a sense of how much broader the connections are than before I started looking beyond what I thought I knew.


Languagehat said...

Wow. Another superb post. Amazing what's online in this wonderful age: both Pokorny and Horn available at the click of a mouse!

Unknown said...

Fascinating as usual. I'm always so impressed by your research, not to mention your facility with writing systems.

v9y said...

वाह, बड़ी स्वादिष्ट पोस्ट है. पनीर सब्जियों में तो पड़ता ही है, इसके पराँठे भी बड़े ज़ायकेदार होते हैं. चलिए मूली हो गई, पनीर हो गया, अब? गोभी या आलू? :)

emre said...

Great stuff. I came here looking to find out which came first: peynir or paneer. Now I know it was neither.

AlterinG Abhishek said...

I just loved the posts!!
and how have you written in so many languages!!??
And I am very keen to know how u have written in Punjabi??
i Havr to do a post in punjabi but just cant find a way

neither can I comment in Hindi..
Help please!!!

bhaiyya said...

Your comments are fascinating. Through many centuries of Turkish rule, mostly by Persianized Khorasanis many persian or turkish words like Paneer become an integral part of Hindi, there are original Indian words in common use for it too. Chhena ( Bengali & Oriya) or Tsman or Chaman ( Kashmiri) from the Hindi root word Chhan, which means "to strain" a reference to how paneer is made from curdled milk

Sneige said...

I found out this blog as I was looking for the common between the Turkish word peynir and Indian paneer, and I learned so much more!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I also came here looking for the which came first, Peynir (Turkish) or Paneer (Indian), and though you never say it, there's one clue: Mughals. The Mughal dynasty was founded by Babur, Timur/Tamerlane's great grandson (who was born in Andijan, Uzbekistan). So I guess the answer is Central Asian (both Turkic and Persian). Now the other question: naan (Indian) vs. non (Uzbek)...I suspect in that case the influence was the other way around (cheese is a nomadic kind of thing, while bread/wheat has to be cultivated...). Interesting post!

Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm impressed. Finally came over something that gets to the core of origins of paneer and panir. My question to you - could they also be related to Latin word panus meaning cloth, as the cheesemaking process involves draining the curds in cheese cloth.

MOCKBA said...

Since the only related meaning in Russian seems to be "penki" "top cream / milk foam", I also wondered if foam/spuma/pena are cognates with paneer too. The foam words are supposed to be derived them from a similar PIE root, *poyǝmn-, *spoyǝmn-, but is there a connection?

languagehat said...

Memiyawanzi now has a post on a Bactrian occurrence of the word.

languagehat said...

Woops, let's try that again: Memiyawanzi now has a post.