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What is a Dhansak?

Understanding Spices

A Dhansak (Dansak) is a popular Indian dish which combines elements of Persian and Gujarati cuisine. It consists of meat cooked with lentils and vegetables.

The dish was introduced to India by the Parsis, a Zoroastrian sect who originated in Iran (Persia). In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Parsis fled the Arab invasion of Persia and arrived in Gujarat, a state on the west coast of India. They brought with them dhansak. Iranian food is generally quite subtle in comparison to Indian food. Over time, the Parsis made use of the variety of herbs and spices available in India, and dhansak became the rich, full-bodied dish as we know it today.

Dhansak is typically a dish that is cooked to mark the end of a mourning. It’s traditionally served on the fourth day after the death of a relative, as no meat should be consumed on the first three days of mourning. This is also why you won’t find dhansak served at celebrations like weddings or birthdays. In the days before pressure cookers, dhansak was usually prepared on Sundays due to the long cooking time. Fortunately these days, it won’t take you a whole day to cook.

How do I cook a dhansak?

The traditional method of cooking dhansak involved combining mutton cubes with four types of lentils (Chana dal, Arhar dal, red Masoor dal and brown Masoor dal).

The vegetables would typically include potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkin, fenugreek leaves and aubergine. You can also use squash or sweet potato depending on which vegetables are available.

The masala (spice mix) plays an important role in the dish. It’s similar to ‘garam masala’, except that the spices are more aromatic and sweet rather than pungent. They include:

  • Cinnamon
  • Cardamom
  • Dried ginger
  • Cloves
  • Nutmeg
  • Coriander seeds
  • Cumin seeds
  • Mustard seeds
  • Fenugreek seeds
  • Poppy seeds
  • Asafoetida

If you don’t fancy buying each individual spice, we sell our own dhansak masala, specially blended at our headquarters here on the Wirral. Once you have the spice mix, the rest of the recipe is pretty straightforward!

To kick start the dish, fry onions and garlic in oil or ghee. Add the spices and tomatoes, and cook together until the oil has separated.

Once this is done, add the chunks of lamb and cook until all the juices have dried out.

An important ingredient you’ll need is tamarind pulp. One of the best things about dhansak is that it combines sweet and sour flavours, and tamarind is the key ingredient. This is added once the lentils and vegetables have been mixed in. if you can’t get hold of tamarind pulp, you can replace it with pineapple or lime juice for a zing.

So, mix in the lentils and vegetables, and add a generous amount of water. Bring to the boil before covering and leaving to cook on a low heat until the lentils are soft and puffy.

Dhansak is usually served with a caramelised rice, where basmati rice is cooked with an assortment of spices and caramelised onion.

If you’re not too fond of lamb, you can replace it with a meat of your choice, eg beef or chicken. You can find a full recipe for chicken dhansak here.

If you’ve never cooked with lentils before, you might find our guide handy.

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