The Iconic Dhansak

 


The Iconic Dhansak

 

In the pantheon of Parsi cuisine, this is the one dish that identifies and is synonymous with Parsi food. Even for people who have never been exposed to our culture or food, this is the one dish they have somehow heard of. The Dhansak recipe in every home is a closely-guarded family secret with each household convinced that the Dhansak cooked in their home surpasses all others.

Dhansak – a cauldron of lentils, vegetables, spices and chunks of bone–in meat, cooked to perfection, sometimes with a wedge of fat added for the utter decadence of it (not for the faint-hearted), served on a bed of caramelised brown rice with a side of kachumbar – a blend of finely diced tomatoes, red onions and cucumber that has been salted and doused in vinegar, like the Persian salad Shirazi. Lots of fresh lemon wedges for squeezing over and yet another salad of sliced onions in a jaggery and tamarind sauce – gor amli ni kachumbar are a must. Often it has mini kebab balls presented alongside the platters of rice to add to the extravagance. While my family only prepares prawn kavabs, others also do meat for variety.

 The folk tales, legends and facts about the origins of Dhansak are many, span centuries and have been passed on through word-of-mouth; thus they have ended up distorted, much like a game of Chinese whispers.

 The most common story of Dhansak’s origin is that it is a dish associated with the ancient ritual of communal eating Ghambar, charum – marking the end of the period of mourning of a loved one and a traditional Sunday lunch. 

Dhansak is an Indian dish and not a Persian one, but many believe that its concept and roots come from the famous Persian dish “Oush”. Folk tales of communities celebrating the season's harvest with wine, food, dance and song are common. It is believed that everyone came together to cook and eat jointly. Wood fires topped with giant pots bubbled away, filled with all kinds of grains, vegetables, meat and noodles brought as an offering by the locals grateful for their harvest.  

As the people from Pars left for the shores of India - their new home, they exchanged the grains for lentils, continued the vegetable and meat, and added on the spices.

The tradition of charum - day 4, continues in Zoroastrianism. Its significance is twofold. Belief that our soul reaches Heaven as dawn breaks on the 4th day, thus marking the end of the mourning period – during which the family ate only vegetarian food – and the resumption of daily life.  The villagers took the dead to the top of a hill outside the city where the Tower of Silence was perched. With men being the hunters, they brought back meat for their next meal. Legend has it that Dhansak was prepared and offered to the neighbours and family and eaten as a community. This practice is followed even today and Parsi Zoroastrians do not eat meat of any kind during the first days and offer Dhansak as the first meal after.

 

As the popularity and ease of preparing this dish increased, people decided to offer Dhansak at Sunday lunch. Parsis being festive in nature, chilled beer, kebabs and two types of salad are offered. Traditionally a mango preserve called ambakalyo – a sweet and savoury treat, or a murumbo is also prepared. Many serve a fish, or a vegetable topped with eggs – the ubiquitous per eedu – to start off the meal, and dessert always follows.

 This meal is rich and heavy, and an afternoon siesta is most acceptable.

People living in India continue with this tradition at home and at colonial style clubs frequented by Parsi Zoroastrians which also offer Dhansak every Sunday on their menu.

 Neither a curry nor a casserole – and at best a stew, it's sacred to the Parsi Zoroastrian community across the globe – and it is just Dhansak.

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