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Dhansak

Lamb Dhansak
Lamb Dhansak

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There are hundreds of recipes for Dhansak and they are all different, every time I make it I do it slightly differently. The dish is of Parsi origin and is a healthy sweet, sour and hot stew. The name comes from dhan meaning grain and sak, a Guajarati word for stewed vegetables.

The Parsis are a Zoroastrian sect who originated in Iran (Persia) and, under circumstances involving persecution, migrated to the Guajarati region of North Western India sometime in the 10th century. So this dish has elements of Persian and Indian cuisine. The sweetness is obtained from some kind of pumpkin, gourd or squash, and tomatoes - not pineapple as some Indian restaurants use. The sourness can come from lime, lemon or tamarind. Traditionally this would be quite a hot dish but I prefer this one about medium.

It has quite a list of ingredients and does take a little while to make - it is a traditional Sunday dish in some Indian homes - but it really is worth it.

Basic Ingredients

1lb (450g) lamb
1lb butternut squash.
4oz (100g) lentils
5 fresh Roma tomatoes or one 400g tin of plum tomatoes
1 large onion
4 cloves garlic
Fresh chilli
1 inch (2.5 cm) root ginger
Juice of a lime
Good handful of coriander leaves
Oil for frying

3 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
teaspoon turmeric
6 black peppercorns
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
teaspoon dried red chilli
Seeds from 4 green cardamoms

Notes on Ingredients

Lamb. Lamb or mutton is the traditional meat for dhansak and other meat is rarely used, but this dish is nothing if not versatile and you can use chicken or even no meat to make a vegetarian dish.

Squash. This is the really interesting bit. You can use any sort of pumpkin, squash or gourd, or even sweet potato. A version that I particularly like uses aubergine (eggplant, brinjal) and sweet potato. You can mix and match using whatever is in season.

Lentils. Again you can use more or less any lentils you have. Some dhansak recipes suggest a mixture of lentils (say masoor, toor and urad) and this gives some very interesting flavours.

Chilli. Two finger chillis in this is about medium - use more by all means.

Lime. Tamarind paste is also really good and lemon is acceptable.

Spices. Coriander, cumin, turmeric and cardamom are pretty standard, after that there are a whole host of thing that you can do. I like the fenugreek in this for the bitter-sweet taste it gives, but you can use cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg - I have even seen star anise suggested.

Mint leaves are also a common ingredient instead of, or as well as the coriander leaves.

Oil. Ghee is good.

Basic Method

Soak the lentils then rinse with cold water
Dice the lamb
Peel the butternut squash and cut into 1 inch (2.5 cm) cubes
Peel and chop the tomatoes if using fresh ones
Peel the onion and roughly chop
Peel the garlic and ginger and chop very finely
Chop the chillis very finely
Roast the coriander, cumin, peppercorns and fenugreek.
Grind the roasted spices together with the seeds from the cardamoms

Put the onions, squash, lentils and tomatoes into a pan and just cover with water.
Bring to the boil then add the turmeric.
Simmer until the all the vegetables are soft.
Take out half of the vegetables and blend in a blender or mash well
Return the blended vegetables to the pan.
Mix together and add the lime juice
Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed pan and fry the garlic, ginger and chillis
Add the ground spices and fry for a minute or so
Fry the lamb until just browned
Add the meat to the vegetables and cook all together until the lamb is tender
Mix in the coriander leaves

Notes on Method

Lentils. This should ideally be done up front as it is best to soak them for about 2 hours with a couple of changes of water. You can get away with soaking them while you do the rest of the preparation.

I have seen a lot of dhansak recipes suggest a pressure cooker for this dish. It certainly reduces the time. I prefer to use normal pans and then once the vegetables, the purée and the lamb are ready, I put the lot into a slow cooker and leave it to stew for an hour or so.

Some recipes recommend that you blend all the vegetables and I guess that is ok but personally I prefer the extra body when you leave some whole vegetables in.

The quantities here will feed four hungry adults.

You can eat dhansak with either bread (naan or paratha is good) or with plain boiled rice. Chutney makes a superb compliment to this meal as well

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