The year was 1997 and Dawn (the newspaper, not the website) was planning to publish a thick supplement to celebrate the 50th Independence Day of Pakistan, and I was commissioned to write an article for it.

My editor handed me Ardeshir Cowasjee’s phone number asking me to coordinate with him on the article. I smiled inside. I liked Ardeshir, he was cynical and buckets of fun to hang around with. I of course knew him well, thanks to the long corridors at the Dawn group's building, where one could bump into almost anyone.

I arrived at his beautiful Bath Island bungalow. There he was, eating the delicious 'dhansak'. It looked almost like haleem or dal gosht, but tasted a little different; the depth of the dish with a base of lentils and vegetables gave it a unique, distinct flavour, and served on a bed of caramelised brown rice the dish was a whole new taste of delicious. That was the first time I ate dhansak.

Food guide to India by Charmaine O Brien defines dhansak as follows:

Perhaps the best known Parsi cuisine is the meat and lentil stew called dhansak. It is never served at weddings, because it is customarily served four days after a death and has associations that are not to be invited during a wedding. Apart from this stricture, dhansak is widely enjoyed and is another unfailing inclusion on Parsi restaurant menus. Parsi cooks are also masters at incorporating extensive number of ingredients in singular dishes. A simple dhansak might contain twenty individual ingredients while a more complex one almost twice that.

My research has led me to believe that Parsi cuisine is a bit of sour (from vinegar, tomatoes and fenugreek) and sweet (white or brown sugar or jaggery). Dhansak is thought to be the best of comfort foods and is traditionally cooked for Sunday lunches. And since it is considered a heavy meal to digest, an afternoon siesta is always welcome after its flavourful consumption.

About its origin, there are various stories, and like all favoured foods, dhansak has evolved through history and geography. It is believed to have roots in the Persian Khoresh (stew), this particular stew that evolved into dhansak was one made with plums, lentils, spinach and meat, and was served on rice. The migration of Persians to the sub-continent christened this particular khosesh as dhansak.

Pat Chapman in his book, India Food and Cooking, says;

Traditionally, dhansak always uses goat meat with up to four types of lentils and slow cooking amalgamates the flavours. During the cooking a kind of ratatouille of aubergine, tomato, spinach and fresh chillies is added. Meat mixed with vegetables and fruit is a typically Parsi recipe and shows its Persian origins. Dhansak is probably the most popular Parsi dish and has sweet and sour [and savory] flavours – the sweet comes from palm sugar (jaggery) and the sour from a slight overtone of fresh lime. The apt derivation of the name of this dish comes from dhan, meaning wealthy in Gujarati, and sak meaning vegetables. Pronounced slightly differently, dhaan means rice, which accompanies this sumptuous dish.

Dhansak became very popular in the late 19th century, with the rapid growth of Bombay and Karachi. The working men were provided with tea and snacks by Parsi immigrants from Iran, who had set up small tea stores on street corners selling soda water, biscuits, tea, omelets, and also dhansak. Hence Karachi and Bombay, the coastal cities of the sub continent, became the two favourite cities of Parsis to settle in.

Interestingly, foods from the sub-continent and the chefs who developed them had assigned codes with new meanings to traditional titles; thus the korma came to signify a creamy dish, dhansak meant a slightly sweet lentil curry and the vindaloo simply indicated that the food would be very hot.

In the book Curry, food historian Lizzie Collingham says;

In the seventh and eighth centuries, fire-worshipping Zoroastrians had fled the Arab invasion of Persia and settled along the west coast of India. The Parsis, as they are known, adapted to their new surroundings, adopting many sub-continental habits. When the Europeans began to arrive, they adapted again; they learned English, moved into shipping, and grew wealthy from the China trade. The East India Company merchants, in Bombay, mixed with the Parsis during the early days of the company and later, once their rule was established, they often employed Parsi butlers in their households.

By this means, the Parsi dish of dhansak became well-known to the British. This is a daal of four pulses, which is made with either mutton, or chicken, and vegetables. It is thick and very spicy and is best-eaten Parsi fashion with caramelized brown rice and fried onions. The use of tamarind and jaggery in the dish betrayed the influence of the Gujarati love of sweet and sour in Parsi cooking. Dhansak was one of the curries that regularly appeared on Anglo-Indian dining tables and that eventually became a standard item on British Indian restaurant menus.

The recipe I share with you today comes from the kitchen of my dear friend Teenaz Javat, she is a Mumbaiite married to a Karachiite. We worked together at Dawn in the past century.

Here it is from my kitchen to yours:

Ingredients

¼ mug masoor daal (red split lentils)
¼ mug moong daal (yellow split lentils)
¼ cup toor daal
¼ mug chana daal
2 onions, finely sliced
2 tomatoes
2 to 3 green chillies
Pinch of turmeric
1 tsp. cumin powder
¼ tsp black cumin
1 tsp. coriander powder
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp dhansak garam masala
1 large brown cardamom
1 cinnamon stick
½ tsp. fenugreek seeds
1 cup aubergine
½ cup red pumpkin
1 potato
½ cup carrots
½ cup spinach
1 tsp. ginger garlic
½ cup oil
2 lbs. mutton
Salt to taste

Method

Soak the grains for four to six hours. Boil lentils eyeballing the water quantity. Once the lentils are boiled add eggplant, potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, spinach and cook until the vegetables are done. With a hand mixer blend the vegetable and lentils.

In a separate pot heat oil, fry ginger garlic and all masalas, adding 1 chopped onion, tomatoes, chillies and meat, cook together until tender. Now mix mutton and lentils and cook together until well blended. Garnish with lemons, fresh coriander and carmelized onions.

Brown Rice

Brown ½ sliced onion, add 4 green and 1 black cardamoms, 5 cloves, 5 peppercorns, 1 bay leaf, salt and brown sugar to taste.

Once sugar caramelises, add 2 ½ mugs chicken or mutton stock, bring to boil, adding 1 mug pre-soaked brown rice. Cook until fluffy, and serve as a bed for dhansak with a side of Kuchumer (chopped onion, tomatoes, green chillies, cucumber, cilantro with a dash of lemon juice).


— Photos by Fawad Ahmed


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