Thursday, June 19, 2008


This past Sunday I had the worst excuse for dhansak ever. It was miserable. Horrid. Nasty in the extreme. A vile and debased concoction. A thoroughly repulsive squogg-dreck mess, off-putting and up-setting. Blah. And gxtvxrdxmmx-nxndxjx!
[06/20/08 FOUL CURSING OBSCURED BY REQUEST OF A READER] I should have known better - what Indian restaurant in the United States actually serves Indian food? More specifically, what Indian restaurant in the United States does anything other than dabba cuisine?

Much as I love Punjabi truck drivers and their rich greasy eats, it was probably too much to expect them to understand dhansak.

What I wanted was mutton chunks in a mixture of various lentils and vegetables, thick and nicely spiced, with chicken croquettes and a chunky cucumber salad. And Parsi brown rice.

What I got was standard steam table curried lamb and uninspired yellow lentils hotchpotted together.

Dudes, that's not dhansak. That's muck. You guys must think I'm white.

Oh wait, I am.

Eliding over the minor matter of my hereditary skin-hue, let me explain how to make dhansak.

Enough for eight people.

[Made with lamb. As it should be. Chicken dhansak (dhansak ni margi) is for wussies.]

Two pounds of chunked lamb on the bone.
One cup of oiled toovar dal (telwalla toor dal).
Half a cup of masoor dal.
Half a cup of moong dal (or urad dal).
A pound of red pumpkin, large chunks (substitute regular pumpkin, or a batata, if no red pumpkin is to be had).
Two or three Chinese eggplants
Three or four tomatoes - peeled, seed, chopped.
Two or three large onions, chopped.
Several cloves of garlic, minced.
A large thumb of ginger, also minced.
A small bunch of methi leaves, plus a handful of cilantro, nicely minced.
A few tablespoons of tamarind water (equal parts hot water and mashed tamarind pulp).
Godrej Ghee or Olive Oil.

Mint leaves - enough to make their presence known, but not an excess.
[06/20/08 - Mistri-bhen alerted me to the omission this morning. And note: actual quantity depends on pungency.]
One batch of Dhansak masala (see below).

Soak the dals for the requisite length of time - overnight, or according to the instructions on the package. Drain, rinse, drain again. Then put in a pan with a teaspoon of turmeric and plenty water to cover, and cook till quite done - about an hour or so. Use a wooden spoon to break up and mash the lentils.

[06/20/08 - oh go ahead; add a goodly pinch of fried ground cumin to the dals - I know you want to.]

Brown the onions in an enameled stew-pan. Add the ground spices plus the garlic and ginger, sauté till fragrant, add the meat and tomato, plus a brisk jigger tamarind water (or substitute a squeeze of lemon and a dash of vinegar), and cook, stirring, till the meat is well coloured and the oil separates. Add water to cover, pinch of salt, cook for about an hour.

Now combine the meat and lentils, add the remaining vegetables, and cook till the eggplant and pumpkin chunks are soft and falling apart - the finished dish will be a medium ruddy brown, with lumps. Adjust the flavours - pinches salt or sugar, dash more hot stuff, another squeeze of lime. Plus a pinch of garam masala for aroma, and a small amount freshly chopped cilantro or parsley for visual appeal.

Serve with kachumber and Parsi brown rice, plus quartered lime for squeezing. And croquettes or pattice.

[Parsi spice mixture used primarily for dhansak]

Ten Dry chilies - Guajillo or New Mexico chiles secos.
Three TBS coriander seed.
One and a half TBS cumin seed.
One TBS whole peppercorns.
Half a TBS fennel seed.
Half a TBS black mustard seed.
Half a TBS fenugreek seed.
Four Tej Patta (cassia leaves - bay leaf may be substituted, but it isn't really the same).

Four green cardamom pods, seeds only.
One black cardamom pod, seeds only.
One three-inch stick of cinnamon.
One star-anise pod.
Eight whole cloves.
One Tsp. mace.

Toast all spices except the mace. Cool and grind. Add the mace and regrind, sift. If you double the recipe to have some for future use, store the excess in a brown or blue glass jar in a cool place. Use within a month.



Guajillo chile: A nice winey dry chile that yields a lovely simmered salsa for New Mexicans, but which also makes a superior chile powder. One Guajillo is roughly equivalent to between two teaspoons and one tablespoon of powder.
[I like to up the ante by also adding a spoonful or two of sambal oelek (simple hot red pepper mash available from Vietnamese, Chinese, or Dutch manufacturers - the Vietnamese brands from Southern California are best), plus a jigger of Louisiana hot sauce to the cooking dhansak.]
Tuvar dal, Toor dal: Pigeon pea, Cajanus Cajan,
Masoor dal: Regular salmon coloured lentil, commonly available. Lens culinaris. Takes less than an hour to cook.
Moong dal: mung beans, (lok dau in Cantonese, 綠豆). Vigna Radiata.
Urad dal: Black gram, vigna mungo.
Red pumpkin: Same as the regular types of pumpkin, different cultivar, different flavour. Cucurbit.
Kachumber: The typical Indian restaurant salad composed of chopped cucumber, tomato, onion, salt, pepper, fried mustard seeds, and cilantro, dressed with a little vinegar, salt, and sugar. Think chunky salsa with cucumber, not wet.
Parsi brown rice: Combine a few tablespoons of sugar with a little water. Heat in a cheap enamel pan till the sugar has melted and started to redden, remove from heat immediately. Carefully add water (beware of savage splattering), and reheat. Add this dark red syrup with a pinch or two of cinnamon to three or four fried onions, add parboiled rice sufficient for the eight people, mix and stir-fry a bit to imbue the rice with the flavours, then add water to cover, place a lid on the pan, and cook on low heat for about twenty minutes. Parsi brown rice is not an exact science. More or less sugar as you wish - it should be slightly sweet, taste of fried onions, the cinnamon should aromatize but not dominate, and it should still be mostly just cooked rice.
Pattice: This is the accepted spelling of 'patties' in descriptions of Parsi food - do not quibble with the spelling. Pattice are similar to Indonesian perkedel - minced chicken held together with a little mashed potato plus flour and spices, kneaded and formed into "patties", and fried brown. The key thing is that they are crispy-flaky, savoury-spicy. You don't need a recipe, just experiment. Serve with a glob of hot (!) green chutney.


Now, what better to delay your after-lunch nap than dessert?

[Errrm, if you keep kosher, postpone the dessert till after your nap. At least three hours.]

[Rice in sweetened cream.]

Two cups heavy cream, and a dash extra.
One cup rice.
One cup cane sugar.
One cup plump golden raisins.
Four Tablespoons rosewater (Arabic: ma'-ward, moit el warda).
Four Tablespoons crumbled pistachios.
A pinch of saffron.

Wash the rice well, spread it out to dry on a tray for a day. Then pound with a brass mortar and pestle until the grains are about one quarter their original size.
Add the saffron to the cream and bring to a boil, add the rice and bring back to boiling, turn low, stir, and add the sugar and raisins. Keep stirring till it has become thick and custardy (meh, takes about ten minutes or so). Remove from heat, and when it has cooled add the rose water and pistachio. Serve semi-chilled.

Shortcuts are possible: one is to dry the rice in the oven on a very low heat (which, if you live in a boggy climate, is better than relying on the weather), another is to use a coffee grinder and pulse the dried rice. The reason why you wash the rice and re-dry it is obvious - you do not want all the powdery crap that normally coats even the best rice, and washing the rice dissolves some of the starches. Redrying it afterwards makes it easier to pound, too.

Of course, instead of pudding, you could simply retire to that long chair on the veranda and doze till sunset. Make sure that the net is down to keep out the flying things and the slats are lowered to keep out the sun.



It is customary to have dhansak for the Sunday noon meal among the Parsees of Bombay. And because lunch is heavy, the household turns quiet afterwards, as the various diners sleep, for their digestion's sake - naught but the occasional borborigmus breaks the silence and disturbs their slumber........... entirely aside from the antiquated air-conditioning system, which sounds like heavy machinery.

I like dhansak. Perhaps you could tell. I was consequently overjoyed to see it on the menu, and bitterly disappointed with the actual dish when it came out of the kitchen. I shall avoid lashon hara by not naming the restaurant that produced that ghastly mess.

Savage Kitten, on the other hand, was happy as a clam. She had Tandoori Murghi. Did you know that a petite Cantonese female can devour an entire Tandoori chicken all by herself? Along with poori, rice, and raita.

Savage Kitten went to sleep promptly upon our return home. I did not.


Unknown said...

I hate to say it, but please, don't curse? I love you and your blog too much.
Shabbat shalom.

The back of the hill said...

My dear Lemuel, I have exxed-out the vowels in the cursing, for propriety's sake.

There have also been other changes, as noted with today's date.

A gitte shabbes.

Anonymous said...


Ingredients :

1/4th cup Toor dal
1/4th cup Moong dal
1/4th cup Urad dal
1/4th cup Masoor dal
1/2 to 1 cup Green Pepper diced
1/2 to 1 cup Broccoli
1/2 to 1 cup Eggplant
1/2 to 1 cup Carrots
1/2 to 1 cup Celery
1/2 to 1 cup Tomatoes
1/2 to 1 cup Onions
1 Tbsp. ginger-garlic paste
Green chilies, Garam masala, Salt to taste 1/4th tsp. Cumin seeds
1 Tbsp. Oil
Corriender leaves
1/2 tsp. ghee (optional)

Method :

Wash toor dal, moong dal, urad dal and masoor dal together. Add 2 to 2 1/2 cups of water.
Add broccoli, carrots, celery and cook in the pressure cooker.
Heat oil add cumin seeds, green chilies, onion and fry until onion becomes golden brown.
Add ginger-garlic paste and fry for some more time.
Add tomatoes, green pepper, eggplant. Cover the vessel. Add some salt. Stir occasionally.
Cook the vegetables. Then add cooked dal. Add some water, garam masala, corriender leaves, some salt if needed. Stir until boiling.
Add ghee for great taste.

Source: Wikipedia

The back of the hill said...

That's not dhansak. That's under-flavoured lentil-vegetable goo. Clearly some hippie wrote that entry. Whatever Parsis browse Wiki do not rely on it for food.

Essential for dhansak:
Meat. Lentils. Eggplant. Pumpkin (substitutions alas inevitable). Fenugreek leaves (methi bhaji). Dhansak spices (mostly medium chili powder, many of the other Indian spices, plus some of the darker aromatics that go with meats). Fresh herbal crap (I say cilantro, Mistri-bhen rightly insists that mint is also required).

Long slow cooking. A taste that balances heat, sweet, sour.

Carrots and broccoli do not belong in dhansak. More than three types of lentil (as follows: a major component, a minor component, and one other) are just muddled - especially if none of them stand out. An absence of Indian spicing is not replaced by dumping in a mere quarter teaspoon of cumin seeds and a miserly pinch of garam masala.

Where's the coriander seed? If it is in the garam masala, then you have a typical Delhwi garam masala - not garam masala.

Where is the Turmeric? Turmeric and dal go together like fish and sambal.
Mustard seed? Fennel or anise? Cardamom types? Cinnamon?

Meh. Very much meh. More meh it cannot be.

Unknown said...

Thank you very much, Blogmaster.

Dhansak must be very delicious. But it seems very difficult to make. I'll try it.

Didn't know there are so many sorts of dal.
I only know the one made of yellow slit pees, garlie, onion, curry, whole twigs of celery, oil and salt. It is eaten with white rice (and pepper if you want). Indian people often eat it with their hand.

Thanks for the recipes.

Anonymous said...

You are aware, are you not, that Parsis would actually push both lentils and vegetables (but not meat) through a sieve for a smooth thick sauce?

Hence your recipe, while interesting, is not entirely authentic. You must cunsolt with the woman you refer to as Mistri-Bhen . Whom I take to be a Parsi from Gujurat.

Anonymous said...

And many Parsis would use more toover, less masoor.

Where is shir berinj from? It seems Irani instead of Parsi

The back of the hill said...

Where is shir berinj from? It seems Irani instead of Parsi

A good guess. It is the Afghan version of chavval ki kheer. The addition of rosewater, however, is distinctly middle-eastern.

I suspect that it (the rosewater addition) is influenced by sahleb (salep) - a popular refreshment from the Levant, made with starch from orris root (Orchis mascula, et spp.). Nowadays the thick beverage is more commonly made with either corn starch or rice flour and sugar, with a heavy jigger rose water, and a brisk little jigger orange blossom water (moit ez-Zahar). Though if made to buck up women who have just delivered, the flavouring is ground caraway seed. Alledged to be very health-giving.

Anonymous said...

This is a very good post. But surely TWO posts about dhansak in one week is a bit much? Again, write about undhio and muttiya. Provide your readers with a more varied diet.

---Grant Patel

GRANT!PATEL! said...

I now have my own blog, by the way. Keep it under your topee for a while, so that I can put stuff on there and make it all pretty and nice and interesting and stuff.

Or at least, frustratingly obtuse and dense.

---Grant Patel

The back of the hill said...

After much experimenting, I must conclude that pushing all the non-meat components through a sieve DOES yield a much better dish. The sauce will be velvety, smooth, and quite delightful. Whereas a more textural sauce yields a slightly gritty mouth-feel.
Heck, whizz it all in a blender if you have to, before re-adding the meat.

Some chicken na farcha at the same meal is also very nice. You WILL need that long nap afterwards.

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