Dhansak: A Fusion of Persian and Gujarati Cuisines Found Favour with the Britishers

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Food historian Lizzie Collingham writes in her book Curry, “In the seventh and eighth centuries, the fire-worshipping Zoroastrians had fled the Arab invasion of Persia and settled along the west coast of India. The Paris 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 often employed Parsi butlers in their households. Perhaps that is how this dish Dhansak became known to the British and often appeared on Anglo-Indian dining tables. British Indian restaurant menus made it a standard item soon. Lily traces the antiquity of the Parsi dish, in the weekly column, exclusively in Truths.

I made some truly fine and dear Parsi friends in the course of my life. The opportunity to hobnob with them came during my husband’s postings as an Indian army officer. The ladies wore the most delicately embroidered borders on their saris called Gara and cooked the most delectable food that my Punjabi palette had ever tasted.

I talk today of the most famous of all Parsi cuisine the power packed dish called Dhansak. The dish is reminiscent of Haleem and Dal Gosht but has a unique flavour of its own. 

The Parsis are a small community in India now as marrying outside the community meant one could be ostracised. Food historian Lizzie Collingham writes in her book Curry, “In the seventh and eighth centuries, the fire-worshipping Zoroastrians had fled the Arab invasion of Persia and settled along the west coast of India. The Paris 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 often employed Parsi butlers in their households. Perhaps that is how this dish Dhansak became known to the British and often appeared on Anglo-Indian dining tables. British Indian restaurant menus made it a standard item soon.

There are various stories about its origin as is true of most favoured foods. Dhansak is believed to have its roots in the Persian stew Khoresh. This particular one was made with plums, meat, spinach and lentils and served with rice. Dhansak is a result of the loving blend of Gujarati cuisine flavours along with the Parsi tastes. Dhansak became popular in the late nineteenth century when Bombay (Mumbai) and Karachi rapidly developed. Parsi immigrants from Iran set up tiny stores in street corners selling tea, snacks, soda water, omelettes and Dhansak to working men.

The stylish technique of extending an expensive ingredient like meat by cooking it along with lentils and is a much used Persian method, which is employed in many recipes. Dhan is the Persian or Urdu word for seeds meaning grains or legumes, Sak or the Hindi-Urdu derivative Saag means greens or . Dhansak gets its element of Gujarati cuisine with the generous use of Indian condiments and spices, unlike the subtle Iranian spices.

Dhansak is eaten on the fourth day after the death of a close relative or dear one. This is because for three days after a death, meat is not cooked in the house.

Since the association of this dish is with sadness, therefore Dhansk is not presented for auspicious occasions like . In Parsi homes it is traditionally made on Sundays as it took almost a complete day to cook all the ingredients into a mushy paste before the days of pressure cookers.

The old traditional method of cooking Dhansak was with mutton cubes blended with four types of lentils – Chana dal, Arhar (Tuwar) dal, red Masoor dal and brown Masoor dal. The vegetables added were potato, tomato, brinjal, pumpkin and fenugreek leaves. The aromatic flavours in the dish comes from a spice mixture rather akin to the Indian Garam masala. The spices used are more sweet than pungent. Cinnamon, cardamom, dried ginger, cloves and nutmeg, coriander seeds and cumin seeds with a pinch of asafoetida are the ones that give it the distinct flavours. The dish is kick started with browned and garlic and finished off with coriander leaves, mint leaves and chilies.

Get hold of a Parsi friend and go for a sumptuous Sunday lunch so that you can sleep off the joy that you imbibe with their love and conversation. The jewel in the crown is the rice it is served with. It is a lip smacking caramelised brown rice.

It’s a dish that must be tried as it combines sweet, sour ingredients like tamarind and due to the Gujarati influence. Taste it once, even if you have to befriend a Parsi, especially for the experience! 

Bon Appétit till next time!

©Lily Swarn 

Photo from the internet.

#Dhansak #ParsiFood #Mutton #ParsiCuisine #HistoryAndMystryOFFood #DifferentTruths

 

Lily Swarn

Lily Swarn

Lily Swarn won the Reuel International Prize for Poetry 2016, Global Poet of Peace and Universal Love, Global Icon of Peace from Nigeria, Virtuoso Award and Woman of Substance. A postgraduate in English from Panjab University, she taught at Sacred Heart College, Dalhousie. A gold medallist for Best All-round Student from GCG Chandigarh, she has University Colours for Dramatics. Widely published and interviewed, she authored, A Trellis of Ecstasy and Lilies of the Valley.
Lily Swarn
Share