We have been exploring each other’s traditional cuisines these past two months in the course of our Velveteering. We tried Alessio’s Caponata and Pamela’s Laksa and this month it is Asha’s turn, and she suggested we make Dhansak which is one of the more well-known preparations of Parsi cuisine.
India being the vast and diverse country it is, there really isn’t one food preparation that would truly represent every part of the country. Perhaps kheer or payasam (which is the Indian version of rice and milk pudding) would come close, but then again there are so many versions of this across the country, but I am not sure.
So not only do we have Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Jains, India is also home to Jews, Parsis, Iranis and Chinese amongst others. This means we are that much richer culturally and each community has drawn on its own traditions, borrowed some from where it has settled down and come up with some of the most exciting tastes and flavours in food that one can think of.
The Parsis came to India from Persia over a thousand years ago, fleeing from persecution by Muslim invaders there, carrying only a flame from their holy temple. This small enterprising and peace loving Zoroastrian community may be small in numbers but is big in stature with many of its members being very well known in their chosen fields.
They’re also very passionate about their food which is mostly non-vegetarian and very egg-centric. Parsi cuisine is a very interesting marriage of Persian and Gujarati cuisine as the Indian state of Gujarat was where they settled down when they first arrived in India.
I know very little about Parsi food other than what I have heard or read about and that is rather unfortunate. The only Parsis I have known well enough, as well enough as a 7 year old could if that was possible, were an elderly couple. They were our neighbours in Tanzania, a Homai Uncle and Gula Aunty and their children Freny and Yezdi.
Uncle Homai must have been in his sixties back then and I remember him as an irritable old man whom Gula Aunty used to pacify – a sort of Mr. and Mrs. Wilson if you will. While I wasn’t quite the menace Dennis was, I now understand that the last thing an elderly Homai Uncle would have wanted was to be pestered by curious, obstinate and rebellious 7 year old who didn’t think something had to be done just because she was told to do it!
What I do have is some memories of both of them. I remember Gula Aunty’s collection of beautiful laces, the lovely chokers (they were the fashion then) she used to make with black ribbon embroidered with beads and sequins and their son Yezdi. Uncle Yezdi, as I used to call him, was a handsome young man, a bike mechanic and crazy about bikes.
He also had immense patience with the 7 year old that I was, and I returned the favour by being his unofficial assistant whenever I could, handing him his spanners and stuff when he needed them. Much as I like to believe I must have been of immense help, I now wonder if I was perhaps in his way more often than not but he was too nice to tell me so!
My apologies for going off on a tangent, so back to the Dhansak I was going to tell you about. Dhansak is a stew-like spiced preparation made with lentils, vegetables and some meat (usually lamb, mutton or chicken and even prawns at times) but of course, my Dhansak is vegetarian. Broadly, Dhansak can be described as a sweet and sour curry with a lentil sauce. The hot comes from red chillies/ chilli powder, sweet from sugar and sour from tamarind.
Dhansak is usually served with Brown Rice (a mildly spiced and caramelised pulav/ pilaf) and Kachumbar (an Indian style salsa made of onion, tomato and cucumber). I believe that kebabs are also sometimes served, but I chose to leave that out and make things easier and crunchier for myself by frying some pappads instead.
Apparently when you say Parsi food to a non-Parsi, Dhansak is invariably one of the dishes that come to mind. The things that come to my mind on being similarly prompted, and I shall post them eventually, are Akoori on toast (a Parsi version of scrambled eggs), Ravo (a sweet made of semolina) and Laganu Custard (Caramel custard pudding) but that maybe because I am not a meat/ fish eater!
I read somewhere that Dhansak is part of festive cooking and features in many homes for Sunday lunch. I also read that Dhansak is not celebratory fare, but actually part of funeral cooking!! It seems they serve Dhansak daal at wedding, without the meat. Anyone know which version is the correct one? If you do, I would love to know.
After checking up the many recipes on the web, I put together my version of Dhansak, which follows right below. You will notice that my recipes say oil or ghee as choice of cooking fat. That is because ghee can be a bit heavy if you’re not used to it or would prefer not to use it, so you may use oil. What I do is use half oil and half ghee. This way I don’t lose out on the flavour that only ghee can lend, without the heaviness. Of course, Dhansak and Brown Rice wouldn’t be on my regular cooking menu but on the one I would use for entertaining.
The Brown Rice is more or less a standard recipe, it seems, and most of them seem to require a little more sugar. I wanted my rice to just have a hint of sweet so this recipe is how I made mine. As for the Kachumbar, it’s a standard Indian style salad you would find in most homes and eateries/ restaurants and doesn’t really need a recipe, but here’s my version.
1/3 cup red gram lentils (tuvar dal)
1/3 cup spilt Puy lentils (masoor dal)
1/3 cup split moong lentils (moong dal)
1/4 cup Bengal gram lentils (chana dal)
2 medium sized onions, finely sliced
1 large potato, peeled and diced
1 medium round eggplant/ aubergine, diced
1 cup red pumpkin, peeled and diced
1 large tomato, chopped
1/4tsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves)
3/4 tbsp tamarind paste
1 tsp jaggery (or sugar)
1 1/2 tbsp oil/ ghee
salt to taste
2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander for garnishing
For spice paste:
2 garlic cloves
1/2” piece of ginger
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1” piece of cinnamon
Seeds from 2 green cardamom pods
4 black peppercorns
2 dry red chillies
First make the spice paste. Dry roast the cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns and red chillies, one at a time, in a small pan over low to medium heat, till the aroma of each just begins to emanate. Let them cool and then grind these and the rest of the ingredients for the spice paste with a couple of tsp of water into a paste. Keep aside.
Put all the lentils in a bowl and wash them well. Then add enough water and the vegetables (eggplant, potato and pumpkin) and pressure cook till done. You can also do this on the stovetop in a largish thick walled pan.
Once you can open the pressure cooker, remove the cooked lentils and vegetables and mash them well. For dhansak this means that there should be no lumps of vegetables visible, and the mixture should be smooth which is probably as it should be if there is going to be meat in your Dhansak. I wanted a bit of texture in my Dhansak so I mashed everything such that small bits of vegetables could still be seen.
Soak the kasuri methi in 2 tbsp of hot water.
Heat the oil in a kadhai/ pan and add the ginger-garlic paste and the spice paste. Cook for about one minute over medium heat, stirring frequently, seeing that it doesn’t burn. Add the onions. Sauté till the onions till they turn golden brown. Now add the tomatoes and cook till they become soft.
Add the mashed lentil-vegetable mixture, turmeric powder, the soaked kasuri methi with the water, tamarind pulp, sugar and salt, and let it simmer for 10 minutes. Cook till gravy thickens and bubbles. The dhansak should be like a thick stew in consistency. If it starts looking dry and hisses/ spits, add a little water to thin it down a bit.
Garnish with chopped fresh coriander. Serve hot with Brown Rice, Kachumbar and Pappads. This recipe serves 4 to 6.
Parsi Brown Rice
2 cups basmati rice
4 cups water
2 tsp sugar
2 onions, finely sliced
2 pieces cinnamon sticks 2” each
3 green cardamom pods
1 teaspoon salt
4 tbsp oil/ melted ghee (or 2 tbsp each of oil and ghee)
Wash and soak the rice in water for half an hour. Then drain the water completely.
While the rice is soaking, heat half the oil/ ghee (2 tbsp) in a pan and, over low to medium heat, sauté the sliced onions till they caramelise (do not burn) to a dark brown and become crisp. Remove from the pan and keep aside.
In a small pan, over medium heat, sprinkle the sugar in a thin layer and let it caramelise till it is quite brown. Do not disturb the sugar while it is melting, but you may stir it a couple of times after it has started turning brown. Make sure it does not burn.
Once the sugar has turned a darkish shade of brown, turn of the heat and immediately (and carefully) pour 1 cup of water into the pan. Stir quickly to dissolve the caramel in the water completely. Keep aside.
Heat the remaining 2 tbsp of oil/ ghee in a largish pan. Add the whole spices and stir for about 30 seconds. Add the drained rice, and stir fry for another minute. Now add about 3/4 of the fried onion (keep the rest for garnishing), the caramel water, the remaining 3 cups of ware and the salt.
Mix well, and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to low, cover, and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes till the rice is cooked, the water is completely absorbed and the grains are separate. Stir a couple of times in between to ensure even cooking but be careful otherwise the rice might break and become mushy.
Serve warm with the Dhansak, Kachumber and Pappads. This recipe serves 4 to 5.
Kachumbar (Indian Style Onion-Tomato-Cucumber Salsa)
2 medium sized onion, diced fine
3 medium sized tomatoes, diced small
2 medium sized cucumbers, peeled and diced small
2 green chillies, chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds, roasted and powdered
2 tbsp each fresh mint and coriander, chopped
juice of 1 lemon/ lime
salt to taste
Put all the ingredients in a bowl and toss together. Adjust to taste, put into a serving dish and serve alongside the main dish of Brown Rice and Dhansak!
This recipe serves 4 to 5.
This was our lunch yesterday and we enjoyed it. The Brown Rice was light with a just a hint of sweetness and so beautifully fragrant. I only wish I had discovered it before. The Dhansak was quite creamy and if I hadn’t cooked it, I wouldn’t have known there was eggplant and pumpkin (not two of my personal favourites) in it! The spices in Dhansak can get heavy and overpowering so it is important not to overdo them, and while it’s a beautiful dish, it is definitely not everyday fare.
The combination of both with the fresh flavours of the Kachumber and the crunch of the Pappads was perfect. If you cannot find Pappads, salted potato wafers are a good alternative. Being the south Indian I am, I think yogurt would have been the perfect way to finish the meal, but then that’s me.
Cooking this meal might seem laborious but it is not. You just need to be organised and have everything prepped and at hand. Then all it takes is putting it all together which doesn’t take all that much time.
The four of us (Alessio, Asha, Pamela and I) go velveteering, as we like to call our kitchen adventures, with a new dish/ style of cooking/ cuisine every month. Each of us will share our recipes, experiences and verdicts on our blogs.
If you would like to join us, please leave a comment at this post or send me a mail and we’ll get back to you.
This month’s Velveteers recipes:
Asha: Mutton Dhansak
Sarah: Easy Chicken Dhansak
Lindsay: Lamb Dhansak Pot Pie
Veena: Vegetarian Dhansak