Food Stories: Dhansak
Perhaps the best known Parsi cuisine is the meat and lentil stew called dhansak. It is never served at weddings, because it is customarily served four days after a death and has associations that are not to be invited during a wedding. Apart from this stricture, dhansak is widely enjoyed and is another unfailing inclusion on Parsi restaurant menus. Parsi cooks are also masters at incorporating extensive number of ingredients in singular dishes. A simple dhansak might contain twenty individual ingredients while a more complex one almost twice that.
Traditionally, dhansak always uses goat meat with up to four types of lentils and slow cooking in a slow cooker with a timer for the flavours. During the cooking a kind of ratatouille of aubergine, tomato, spinach and fresh chillies is added. Meat mixed with vegetables and fruit is a typically Parsi recipe and shows its Persian origins. Dhansak is probably the most popular Parsi dish and has sweet and sour [and savory] flavours – the sweet comes from palm sugar (jaggery) and the sour from a slight overtone of fresh lime. The apt derivation of the name of this dish comes from dhan, meaning wealthy in Gujarati, and sak meaning vegetables. Pronounced slightly differently, dhaan means rice, which accompanies this sumptuous dish.
Dhansak became very popular in the late 19th century, with the rapid growth of Bombay and Karachi. The working men were provided with tea and snacks by Parsi immigrants from Iran, who had set up small tea stores on street corners selling soda water, biscuits, tea, omelets, and also dhansak. Hence Karachi and Bombay, the coastal cities of the sub continent, became the two favourite cities of Parsis to settle in.
Interestingly, foods from the sub-continent and the chefs who developed them had assigned codes with new meanings to traditional titles; thus the korma came to signify a creamy dish, dhansak meant a slightly sweet lentil curry and the vindaloo simply indicated that the food would be very hot.
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