Alif the Unseen and Palak Paneer


Are you ready for this one? Let’s mash Arabic mythology, including the jinn, with computer hacking and technology. With me so far?

G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen starts with a man forcing a story from a jinn, a book that becomes known as The Thousand and One Days, and then flashes forward to today, to a Middle Eastern security state where a boy is pining for the love of a girl. That boy is Alif, the sometimes infuriatingly stubborn and cowardly computer hacker, who guides our story.

That story picks up when the girl, Intisar, tells Alif that she has been betrothed to another man, but sends him a copy of an ancient book as a parting gift–The Thousand and One Days. At the same time, Alif’s computer is suddenly hacked by what can only be assumed is the Hand of God, the state’s head of security.

From there, we go on a great romp of a ride–running through ancient mythology and modern day hackery for clues as to why the Hand of God is chasing Alif. Alif’s neighbor, a girl named Dina is along for the ride and provides a fantastic, brave female character to parallel Alif’s growing maturity in the story. The book manages to tie in adventure, spirituality, romance, and, surprisingly enough, mathematics.

The book was fun, interesting, compassionate, and at the end, really brought a new worldview that is normally missing from my reading. Perhaps not a re-read on my end, but a fervent recommendation out there for anybody who is interested in, well, any of the aforementioned subjects.

For a classic Indian dish, pair your reading of the book with palak paneer, a spinach cheese curry. (Disclaimer: Alif actually eats saag paneer in the book, but saag, a plant similar to spinach isn’t normally available in the U.S. so a spinach substitute will have to do. Also, I couldn’t find paneer, an Indian cheese, so we’re using ricotta instead. Blasted!)

Oh So Yummy and Healthy Palak Paneer (adapted from this recipe)


  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium finely chopped onion
  • 5 cloves chopped garlic
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
  • 2 teaspoons garam masala
  • 1 cup sour cream or greek yogurt
  • 3 pounds fresh spinach torn (or two 10 oz frozen packages)
  • 2 large tomatoes quartered
  • 1/2 can tomato paste
  • 8 ounces solid ricotta cheese (preferably paneer, which you can also make at home)
  • Salt to taste


If using fresh spinach, add spinach and a few tablespoons of water to a large saucepan. Cover and cook down for 2-3 minutes or until wilted. Strain over the sink, making sure to press down to remove most of the water.

While spinach is draining, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in the same saucepan and saute onion until brown. Mix in the garlic, ginger, cayenne, cumin, coriander, turmeric, garam masala, and sour cream (add more or less to achieve desired creaminess). Add in the spinach and stir in completely. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.

Pour spinach mixture into a blender or food processor and add the tomato and tomato paste. Blend for 15 to 30 seconds, or until the spinach mixture is pureed. Pour back into the saucepan and keep warm over low heat.

In a medium frying pan heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat, and fry slices of the cheese until browned. Drain, cut into cubes, and add to spinach. Cook together for 5 minutes on low heat, stirring gently. Season with salt to taste.

What are your favorite Indian dishes? 

About nikki_steele

Freelance writer and editor. Creator of BookPairing blog.
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  • K-Nast

    You got me all excited about Arabic history and then made the jump to Indian food. Blegh. THANKS. I’ll add the book to the list.

    • Nikki Steele

      Well you don’t have to read the book and eat palak paneer, even though it is really tasty AND holistic. The main character is half-Indian, half-Arabic. How about this one for the Arabic side (and I know you’ll love the website):

  • Ric Steele

    The recipe is really good.

    • Nikki Steele

      I’m glad you think so :D

  • Kit Steinkellner

    Now I want to read! I’ve been seeing the cover all over and just haven’t gotten around to it. Maybe it’ll be my next audiobook…. I’ve made saag paneer before, it takes a little patience but so fun and so good— if your city has any kind of Indian market at all they should have paneer. I love making Chicken Tikka Masala, the longer you cook, the better it is and substituting tofu is so easy! My favorite Indian dish to order at restaurants is Malai Kofta, got to learn that next, and Brian my fiance loves chicken curry with dried bananas so that’s on deck too….

    • Nikki Steele

      Whaaat chicken curry with bananas? That sounds so amazingly good and definitely something I’ll need to root out in Phoenix.
      The first time I made saag paneer it ended in near catastrophe… this time was much better, haha. There is an Indian market and I felt like such a schlub using ricotta for this recipe but ack meh couldn’t find the time to make the stop. I also totally used Rotel in place of the tomatoes and cayenne, so you can mark this under “whitest girl ever makes Indian recipe” recipe :D
      And chicken tikka masala is my favorite. I don’t let myself cook it for fear of eating it all.