Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Chicken Dhansak

This is a hot, spicy, sweety, sourish, rich, rounded and well, just bloody huge curry. And I think I’m underselling it, too. Originally a Parsee dish with Iranian roots, exported to Gujarat and thereabouts, Chicken Dhansak has remained a staple of Brit curryhouse menus for decades: ideal with a Bombay aloo, keema nan, pilau rice and about 12 pints of lager.

I’ve seen versions of this recipe that have ranged from simple and straightforward, but rather unadventurous, to intensely complex and a labour of love that is hours in the making. I have attempted to combine the best of both worlds, cheating like the evil little devil that I am and using tinned lentils rather than the traditional mixture of boiled up dals. So if you want to be truly authentic, substitute the lentils in this recipe with about 250g of dal (moong or toor dal with perhaps a handful of chana dal mixed in) that’s been washed, soaked for 30 mins and then boiled in about 500ml of water (topping it up if it dries out) with perhaps a little spice and turmeric in it until the dal has softened up and can be mixed up into a creamy consistency – about another 30 minutes should do it.

I quite like to use green lentils, called ‘horse dal’ in some quarters, which is quaint. These come in 400g tins and just need to be rinsed quickly before using. That cuts down the preparation quite a lot!

Serve it up with a basmati rice (or a rich pilau if you’re feeling indulgent) and perhaps a little yoghurt mixed with chopped cucumber (a ‘raita’) if you feel you might feel the heat a little. I like
to serve it up with pappadums and a dry potato curry alongside, too.


  • 750g chicken
  • 300ml chicken stock
  • 400g tin green lentils, drained and rinsed
  • 2” fresh ginger, grated
  • 6 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 tsp dried methi (fenugreek) leaves
  • 3 tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 large green chilli, deseeded & chopped
  • 1” lump jaggery, crushed up
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh mint
  • 50ml tamarind paste
  • 1 tbsp lime juice

Spice Mix (Masala)

Whole spices

  • 1 star anise
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • ½ tsp mustard seed
  • 4 tsp coriander seed

Ground spices

  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp grated nutmeg
  • ½ tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp chilli flakes
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp red chilli powder

Fry the whole spices until they pop, then cool down and whiz before combining with the ground spices.

This recipe is worth preparing in advance so that everything’s to hand once you get the pan going. First mix the chicken pieces with the garlic and ginger and, while this is marinating, soak the tamarind (about half a block will soak in about 75ml of hot water to give about 50ml of paste after about 30 minutes and a bit of pushing about with a spoon. Do strain the seeds and goo out before you use the resulting paste though!). While that’s happening, you can fry the spices and do the other prep.

Heat the oil in a good, deep frying pan over a medium heat and then add the onion, stirring so that it doesn’t catch, then add the chicken and its marinade. Turn the heat up to fry this, stirring, until the chicken has whitened all over and then add the spices, the tomatoes and the chilli. Cover and cook for a couple of minutes and then add the lentils and the stock. Cook for another two minutes or so, then add the jaggery, lime and tamarind, stir it all up then add the coriander and mint. Turn the heat to low and cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, for a further 8-10 minutes.

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