We have been exploring each other’s traditional cuisines these past two months and 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 somanyversions 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