South Asian cookery can be a daunting prospect for a western cook unless you happen to be from the UK, where Indian and Pakistani foods and ingredients are an integral part of of the culinary landscape. For most though, Indian food is relegated to being savoured in restaurants. The array of spices and seasonings seem so unfamiliar and complicated that even a savvy cook may take pause. However, mustering up a little courage and trying your hand at South Asian cookery will have you wondering what all the trepidation was all about after all.
Dhansak is an ideal dish to familiarize yourself with the balance of South Asian ingredients, seasonings, and cooking methods. Give it a try! Fortified with new found confidence will set you off on an adventure in South Asian cookery.
Dhansak is a Parsi dish which is a melding of Persian, Pakistani, and Indian cuisines, brought to South Asia by Persian Zoroastrian emigrants that settled in the regions of Sindh and Gujarat in the 10th century. The dish includes lentils (native to Persia), as well as other pulses, lamb, vegetables, and a confluence of traditional seasonings. If lamb is not your thing, try the recipe with chicken, or make a vegetarian version as many Hindu Indians do. The recipe is open for interpretation, but keep in mind cows are holy in India and never eaten, and pork rarely.
Shopping: A trip to an Indian market is your best bet for finding all the ingredients you will need. If that is not an option, a health food store should have a good selection of pulses, an Asian market for tamarind and palm sugar, a spice shop for seasonings, and your local butcher for the lamb.
Dhansak serves 4
For the pulses (dried legumes)
- ¼ cup masoor dal (red lentils)
- ¼ cup mung dal (green split mung beans)
- ¼ cup yellow chana dal ( yellow split chick peas)
- 1 cup finely diced onions
- 1 garlic clove, whole peeled
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
Pick through the pulses and rinse well. Place them in a sauce pan and add the onion, garlic, turmeric, and water to well cover. Bring contents to a low boil and simmer until the pulses are very soft. This could take 30 minutes to more than 1 hour depending on the age of the pulses. Add additional water as needed while cooking. Don’t worry about overcooking, just be sure all varieties are very soft. Remove from the stove and set aside to cool for 10 minutes. Then transfer the pulses to a food mill or blender and process, adding all the cooking liquid to make a smooth puree. Transfer the puréed pulses to a bowl and set aside.
- 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 10 black peppercorns
- 8 small dried red chillies, seeded and crumbled
- 6 cardamom pods
- ½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
- 2 pounds/900g lamb shoulder (or chicken), cut into bite size pieces
- 2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter), coconut or peanut oil
- 2 medium onions, peeled and diced
- 10 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 1 ½ inch fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
- small handful of curry leaves
- puréed pulses
- 1 tablespoon garam masala powder
- 1 medium eggplant, peeled, cut into ¾ inch cubes, salted, drained 45 minutes, rinsed. Excess water squeezed out.
- 2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into ¾ inch cubes
- 1 cup green peas
- ¼ cup tamarind
- 2 teaspoons palm sugar (jaggery)
- 1 ¾ cups water
- sea salt to taste
- fried shallots to garnish
Place the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, and crumbled red chillies in a dry sauté pan placed over low heat. Toast the ingredients until lightly colored and aromatic. Transfer promptly to a mortar and grind into a coarse powder. Set aside.
Heat the ghee or oil in a large wide sauce pan or soup pot until nearly smoking. Add the lamb (or chicken) and sear until lightly browned on all sides. Lower the heat slightly and add the onions and garlic. Saute until soft, 2-3 minutes. Add the grated ginger, ground spice mix, and curry leaves and stir until combined. Add the pureed pulse mixture and enough water to cover all the ingredients in the pan. When the contents come to a boil lower the heat and when just simmering, partially cover the pot with a lid and simmer for 1 hour. (If using chicken reduce the cooking time to 25 minute.) Stir from time to time and add more water if needed. Test the lamb to determine if it has softened. If still firm continue cooking until the lamb is tender, but not falling apart.
Then add the garam masala, eggplant, and potatoes and continue cooking, stirring from time to time, until the potatoes have softened. About 20-25 minutes.
Meanwhile combine the tamarind, palm sugar and water in a small sauce pan. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly, then strain, pressing on the tamarind pulp to extract all the tamarind juice. Set aside.
Add the peas and tamarind juice to the Dhansak and stir everything together until well combined. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently as the liquid reduces to a thick soupy consistency. Taste and add sea salt to your liking before serving.
Serving: Place the Dhansak in a serving bowl or individual bowls, garnish with fried shallots. Serve with basmati rice, and a cooling cucumber salad (see here)
Storage: The Dhansak can be refrigerated for several days or frozen for later use. Bring to room temperature before reheating, adding water as needed to thin out the liquid.