I’m nine years old. The six spicy tangy lamb kebabs I ate a few hours ago for breakfast were not enough; I’m hungry again. I already know what’s for lunch this Sunday – it’s always the same. It has been for the last 246 Sundays.
I’m joking. I haven’t been keeping count. But I know Mum’s making dhansak, a traditional Parsi meat and lentil stew served with caramelised rice. Again.
As I come to my favourite section of the Sunday Mid-Day, the horoscopes, I can smell the thick, spicy dahl bubbling on the stove. There’s a faint meaty aroma in the air, which means Mum’s opened her pressure cooker and is busy poking the chunks of goat meat to see if they fall apart. Grandpa stands by the dining table, picking away the seeds from our watermelon sherbet.
And Dad? Dad’s making kachubar, a tangy onion, tomato and cucumber salad. He’s also trying hard to engage me in a debate about onions tasting better when thinly sliced versus finely chopped. I roll my eyes. Who cares?
Does everyone in the world also eat dhansak every Sunday? Surely they must be bored of it by now like I am. But despite my ennui, I always have seconds.
Homemade dhansak (Photo: Perzen Patel)
For my first serving, my plate is full of long grains of basmati rice caramelised with jaggery. On top of the rice is a puddle of thick dahl with four pieces of goat meat. On the side is Dad’s kachubar. Granny tries to force her boiled beetroot onto my plate, but I always fill it up so there’s no space.
Time seems to slow right down as we all dig into our dhansak. It’s total silence as we have those first few bites. The dahl is spicy, though the tang of the kachubar helps.
Granny hates how I eat my dhansak seconds. I fill my bowl with just the dahl and then scoop it into my mouth using the dry lemon peel. Her colonial sensibilities are offended that I’ve ditched the fork and spoon for my hands. But I’m too busy slurping it up to notice.
As we clean up, Mum smiles and pokes my back. “I thought you were so sick of dhansak that you can’t eat another plate?” she says. I shrug happily and go to lie down on the bed beside Dad. Somehow, my Sunday nap is much better after a plateful of dhansak.
Every Sunday is the same. Until I turn 13, and my parents get divorced.
Mum and I moved cities, dad moved to some other part of Mumbai I had never seen, and suddenly, just like that, Sundays were not about dhansak any more.
Throughout the next eight years of living alone with Mum, I ate many different Sunday meals. Fish curry when Mum was missing her mother, potato and cheese sandwiches if she was tired, or a platter of leftovers if the fridge needed clearing.
The teenage me felt like slapping my eight-year-old self. Of course the whole world didn’t eat dhansak on a Sunday. What was I thinking?
On the occasional Sunday when Mum cooked dhansak she’d talk about our forgotten tradition, tell stories of her as a new bride struggling to understand the Sunday dhansak ritual. Other times, she’d wistfully remember Dad hugging her from behind as she added the meat to the dahl.
As I was getting dressed for my wedding day, Mum said, “Beta, I hope your in-laws don’t eat dhansak every Sunday as mine did. But if they do, learn to adjust, OK?”
Thankfully, there was no Sunday dhansak tradition in my new home. A good thing, considering I didn’t even know how to make it!
The first time I tried making dhansak, it was a total disaster.
I thought all my years of eating it would mean I could cook a perfect one. But I rushed it. I put all the meat, vegetables and dahl together in the pressure cooker. The result? A pot full of brownish water, with burned meat and vegetables floating around in it. I had to work on my technique.
As a Parsi, dhansak is fused to my identity. In the same way as you might see an Indian and think of butter chicken, when I told anyone I was a Parsi they asked me to cook them dhansak.
It took many tries to learn how to make a decent dhansak. One of my first lessons was that it’s better to cook the meat first, then use the stock to cook the dahl. The final dish is more satisfying when vegetables like pumpkin, aubergine and fresh fenugreek are added. I learned to resist the temptation to make dhansak an hour before I had to serve it because it’s a labour of love. When the dahl has been soaked, the meat marinated, and the whole dish slow-cooked, the result is 100 times better.
But it took years for me to learn that what separates a good dhansak from an exceptional one is the dhansak masala, the core spice that goes into the dahl.
The recipe for dhansak masala is a closely guarded secret, so well protected by our grandmothers and aunties that few Parsis know how to make it. It’s an all-in-one spice blend that contains half an Indian shop’s worth of spices, with the main notes being earthy cumin, zingy coriander and woody cinnamon with a hint of chilli. While dhansak lovers in India can find the masala in Indian spice stores, that’s not the same for us in the diaspora.
When a close friend gifted me her grandmother’s dhansak masala recipe, I didn’t understand the treasure I was receiving.
Having cooked more than 5000 litres of dhansak as a caterer – with a store-bought spice blend, gasp! – in India, I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to eat the dish again, let alone make dhansak masala from scratch.
But as my children reach the age where they sit in a chair long enough to finish their meal, I feel called to create new family traditions that are uniquely ours. If I can convince my children to marinate the meat and make the rice, and my husband to chop the kachubar, then perhaps our new tradition will be an afternoon meal dedicated to dhansak.
There’s something very comforting about cooking and eating a dish my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all grew up eating, mainly on a Sunday.
Wanting to experiment with making dhansak at home? Here’s my family recipe for the dish, and my small business, Dolly Mumma, can help you with the dhansak masala.