Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Vegetable Dhansak: An Interpretation

I don't have many bad habits (unless you count frequent bouts of bone idleness or the inability not to tell others what to do as bad habits. Fortunately, I don't count those things). There is one indulgence in the A&N household of which we're equally guilty and will inevitably lead the other one astray by saying the words "Shall we be naughty tonight?". For some couples, this statement might trigger the whiff of leather in the air, but for us it means the intoxicating debauchery of a take away curry.

We only turn naughty in this manner once ever couple of weeks, although both of us feel like we're eating our due since we're each making up for lost time. Having only moved to Britain in my 20's, I didn't grow up with the option of an Indian take away for your Friday night meal. Pizza, yes, Mexican, Chinese, even Japanese, but Indian was a very foreign food group. And although Mr A&N is a good Yorkshireman and as Bri
tish as they come, he also spent his first 20-ish years in deprivation since his mother is a bit of a health nut and didn't really approve of such meals (it could explain why she's still running marathons when she's into her 60's and I find it a bit of an effort to go upstairs, brush my teeth, and get myself into bed at the close of each day).

We've tried to make our own curry a few times but the result is never as good as when made by someone who actually knows how to make a good curry. The family in the house two doors down constantly has a pot of something on the go, and the smell will drive you mad with desire; some weekends, stealing sniffs of the heady scent of their spice combinations is the only thing that can get me out and weeding the garden. Why I
thought it would be a good idea to take on another curry, with such disappointments behind me and such perfection just a few doors down (or a phone call away) I don't know, but this last Friday I declared that we would be making our own curry rather than buying it.

We have a trio of dishes we tend to get each time we order our take away, with the dhansak being our favorite. If you're not familiar with a dhansak, it's a slightly sweet, slightly spicy lentil-based curry. It's a Parsee dish, and the sweet-sour flavor show its origins in Persian foods (the Parsees traveled to India from Persia over 1000 years ago and are still a closely-knit although small community). With a touch of coconut milk to it and a smooth but hearty texture, it's curry comfort-food of the highest order.

Mr A&N helped hunt down dhansak recipes, of which it turns out there are many, many variations. He made the base curry sauce (added at the last stage t
o the main pot) and I agreed to make the rest. After deciding on and printing out a recipe, I became panicky-frustrated as I found item after item that we didn't have in our cupboards, despite me already being on the road to making the dish. So, our dhansak recipe will have to be added to the legions of different and inauthentic recipes already out there, mainly due to poor preparation and the need to fudge things. The original, 'authentic' recipe that I riffed on is at the bottom of this page.

Despite those concessions, though, this was our best home made curry yet. It had the right balance of sweet and spicy, creamy and crunchy, comfort and filling, and for the next 2 days every time I walked into the kitchen I'd find Mr A&N cuddling the tupperware container the curry was in, communicating with it via a spoon. We made ours with only vegetables rather than meat, but works equally well with either. Good thing it came out well, since I made
a giant batch of the stuff. I was tempted to take some around to the neighbors to show them what I had accomplished, but my bone-idle laziness kicked and I just ate and enjoyed.

Vegetable Dhansak
Serves 6-8 as a main course, with some leftovers possible.

  • Basic curry sauce - the recipe we used can be found at The Curry House website so please follow their instructions, but for ease of collecting ingredients, you'll need:
    • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil or ghee (clarified butter)
    • 1 medium onion - finely chopped
    • 4 cloves garlic - peeled and sliced
    • 1.5 inch piece root ginger - peeled and thinly sliced (it should look about the same volume as the garlic)
    • (optional) 2 mild fleshy green chillies - de-seeded and veined then chopped
    • half teaspoon turmeric powder
    • half teaspoon ground cumin seed
    • half teaspoon ground coriander seed
    • 5 tablespoons plain passata (smooth, thick, sieved tomatoes, US = purée) or 1 tablespoon concentrated tomato purée (US = paste) mixed with 4 tablespoons water
  • 300g / 1 1/4 C of mixed, small lentils. I used about half red lentils, and then 1/4 green and 1/4 puy lentils.
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced into half moons.
  • 1 Tbs tamarind powder
  • About 1 1/2 litres of water
  • 1 small squash (like an acorn squash), peeled and cut into 1cm / 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1 small handful of fresh coriander leaves
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • nob of fresh ginger, grated or 1 tsp ground ginger
  • about 1 1/2 Tbs dried coconut or 1/4 can of coconut milk
  • 2 Tbs mango (or other sweet Indian) chutney
  • If making vegetarian version: about 2 C of mixed vegetables - fresh or frozen - such as peas, green beans, broad beans/lima beans, courgette, etc
  • If making meat version: about 1/2 lb of meat (lamb or chicken would be best), cubed and browned so that it's mostly cooked.
  1. Start by making the basic curry recipe; set aside.
  2. In a large, heavy saucepan, pour in the lentils, 1 liter of the water, the tamarind powder and the sliced onion.
  3. Partially cover, and boil for about 30-40 minutes over a medium heat or until the lentils are soft. Check periodically that there's still enough water in the pot (the lentils shouldn't be swimming but they shouldn't approach going dry either).
  4. Meanwhile, boil the squash pieces in the other 1/2 liter of water for about 20 minutes or until soft.
  5. Throw the coriander into the pot with the squash just as you are turning off the heat. Drain the water away, and mash the squash and coriander together.
  6. When the lentils are soft enough, mash them a bit with a potato masher (the lentils will probably escape through the slots in the masher, but do your best).
  7. Reduce the heat to low, and stir in the squash and coriander mixture.
  8. In a mortar and pestle, grind up the garlic and the ginger until you have about 1 Tbs of paste (if you need to help the grinding, add a bit of salt for friction). The ginger should be in a 2-to-1 proportion to the garlic.
  9. Add the garlic-ginger to the lentil mixture and stir thoroughly.
  10. Add the basic curry sauce, the coconut, and the chutney and stir well (if making the meat version, add the meat at this point as well). Allow to simmer together for about 20 minutes (if you have the patience!) to enrich the flavors and cook the meat. Taste and adjust for seasoning.
  11. Add the vegetables, and cook for another few minutes.
  12. Serve with rice or naan.


Peter M said...

When making a dish from another culture, I try and imagine if they (in this case the Parsi) would like it.

It sounds like you were happy with the result, move on to try more curries I say!

Kevin said...

Curries of all varieties area my favorite. I have not tried a dhansak curry. It sounds pretty tasty. I like the use of the squash and the mango chutney. Bookmarked

Wendy said...

I always like to have portions of a vegetable curry stored in my freezer. Usually use Nigella's recipe from "How To Cook" but the results are VERY variable. Going to try this one out, maybe today!

Chris said...

What is your favourite takeaway, and will they deliver to Battersea?

Mine is Spice Fusion - please try it out!

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

Sounds great. I love cooking Indian food. My sister-in-law is Indian and I've had the privilege of spending time with her family and eating the best Indian food.

So pleased to know you embrace your inner sloth! I like nothing more.

Melissa said...

How about making friends with the family 2 doors down by inviting them
over for one of your fabulous looking
meals? I am sure they would be
flattered and you just might get some
personal instruction on curry prep.

Annemarie said...

Hi Peter - I think you're right with that approach. Sadly I think real parsis would be horrified with what I did, but we enjoyed it. :)

Hi Kevin- Do try the dhansak - it's a bit different from the average curry but it's nothing less than delicious.

Hi Wendy - I like to get my curry recipes from Madhur Joffrey now - more reliable than many of the others.

Hi Chris - Battersea might be a bit of a stretch for the poor delivery man to get to from Walthamstow. :) I'll keep Spice Fusion in mind next time I'm down south of the river.

Hi Amanda - I'm embracing my inner sloth so well that I should have been in bed an hour ago but I'm still on the internet. Sigh.

Hi Melissa - I've tried making friends with them with the ulterior motive of gathering recipe tips, but I think they've cottoned on to that and want to keep their secrets secret. :)

Babeth said...

You did a great job! Balance is key I must say in everything ;-)

Kate / Kajal said...

Gosh this dish brings back so many memories. We used to have this at my parsi friends house and her nana had this special dhansak spice that she used to boast is the best in town. I remember once we got some from her and my mom always made it after that. Nice to know this dish is enjoyed the world over.

Melissa said...

What a shame... I think that they are
missing out on some wonderful gatherings with you and your husband..as well the variety of fabulous dishes that you prepare..

Emiline said...

Congrats on making the best curry you've ever made.
Sometime I forget how delicious curry is, but then you taste it, and remember. I think I'll make some tonight!
You should ask your neighbors if you can have dinner with them.