A few weekends ago I visited my ever growing collection of cook books. There isn’t suitable shelving to keep them in the kitchen so I have dedicated a little cubby hole in the hallway with two book shelves that face each other for my brimming collection. Inevitably what happens is by the end of each week I have a pile of books to take back to their home from kitchen. When I took last week’s pile back I realised that they just did not fit probably due to a couple of new members to my cook book family. It seems that now I must leave a pile of books homeless in the kitchen as my new additions have no home on the bookshelf! Time to buy bigger shelves…..
I ended up picking out a few to keep in the kitchen- mostly Indian ones as I seem to be going through a bit of a back to my roots phase. I found one that was particularly well loved that my father had bought in India a number of years ago. Although I have used it before, you could tell that it was a book that my father enjoyed and used well. Apart from the pages of his favourite recipes slightly dogeared and worse for wear, his trademark highlighter marking was garnished throughout the book as it was in most books he read; the more highlighter, the more he like the book. Any time I come across a book that has been highlighted, I smile.
My father adored cooking and learning new methods of cooking. His speciality was any kind of meat, especially anything BBQ related, as is what most alpha-male-part-time cooks would say and claim to be their “territory” when it comes to the kitchen. Saying that, my father was not only a magnificent BBQ-er, he made delicious dal and meat curries too. In fact whatever he made tasted utterly scrumptious. He certainly knew his way around the spice box and was able to marry flavours together with perfection. One thing that always made us laugh was his method of cooking. He was certainly the head chef and he would make sure that he had his sous chefs on hand whenever he was cooking.
When I was a child, I remember my father gathering my sister and me in the kitchen when he was ready to cook something. As it was an occasional foray in the kitchen for my father, it was a treat when he decided to take over for the day as he would involve us and let us do things like chopping and stirring. My mother didn’t let us do things like this when we were so young as it would slow her down when she was trying to prepare dinner everyday for the entire family after a long day at work. My father would sit on the kitchen table in his chair, spice boxes and bottles of seasonings surrounding him, he would concoct his marinades or masalas. Of course, my sister and I were not idol- we were put to work! Peeling the ginger, garlic and onions, fetching whatever was on on the kitchen table already (my mother stayed out of the kitchen on these occasions for this reason- my father would literally have everything out of the cupboards and the mess would be beyond her tolerance level!). I never saw it as work, I loved watching my father and helping him. I don’t think he realised how much he taught me in the way that he cooked and how different it was to my mother or grandmother. My experimental tendencies certainly come from my father. These were some of those treasured memories I have spending time with him and him sharing something that he loved to do with us; in turn it has become one of my own passions in life.
My Chicken Dhansak
I dedicated this recipe to my father because this is the kind of dish he loved. He loved a good hearty, flavourful meat or chicken curry and although not something we’d traditionally cook in our family, I remember Dhansak being one of his favourites. My recipe has elements of a traditional Parsi Dhansak, but with a touch of flavour and texture variation from me. For me, I love the heartiness of slow cooked dishes. This one is not only hearty because of the lentils and vegetables, but there is a deliciousness that comes from cooking on the bone makes this as tasty as it is nutritious. It’s a wonderfully simple one pot dish (if you omit the tempering and fried onions stage) to make for gatherings and served with freshly made *naan or tandoori style roti, some fresh yoghurt and some freshly sliced sweet onions.
If you are in the mood for lamb dhansak over chicken, this recipe will work just as well for lamb. You can use lamb on the bone or off , but you will need to cook for a little longer and on a gentle heat to ensure the meat is not tough.
This recipe can make enough for up to 10 people depending on the size of your chicken. If you have left overs, this freezes beautifully too.
1 whole chicken de-skinned and cut into 12 pieces or 1.5-2kg of thigh/leg on the bone de-skinned
100g Toor dal (split pigeon peas)
100g Masoor dal (split red lentils)
100g yellow Moong dal
2 large onions chopped finely
2 tbsp grated ginger
2 tbsp grated garlic
3-4 long green chilis (blend these with the ginger and garlic paste)
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
1 good sized aubergine cubed (about 200g)
1 sweet potato peeled and cubed – red or white (about 400g)
Tamarind paste to taste (about 3-4 tbsp)
2-3 tbsp ghee or butter (if using ghee, only use home made- store bought ghee does have the same flavour. Butter is a much better option)
3-4 tbsp Oil plus extra for frying onions for the topping
1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
2-3 large black cardamom pods
2 inch cassia bark/cinnamon stick
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp coriander powder
2 tsp red chili flakes or powder
2-3 tsp garam masala (mine if homemade and in the punjabi style, you can use one that you like)
1/4- 1/2 cup kasoori methi (dried fenugreek leaves) depending on the strength
salt to taste (about 2 tsps)
Fresh green coriander/cilantro for garnishing
1 large onion sliced finely to fry until deeply caramalised for garnishing
2 tsp of butter, 1 tsp cumin seeds, `1 tsp of kasoori methi and 1/2 tsp of garam masala for tempering. (this is optional step and the end. It adds a nice buttery flavour, but if you omit it, the dish will taste just as good)
** For my tsp measurements when cooking non baked items, I use an eating tsp…they are not level measurements – more rounded/heaped and so a little more than a measured tsp. The measurements I have given are exactly what I used at the time I made this, but each time I make something I rarely follow the same recipe verbatim; there is always room for adjustments, experimentation and of course substitution when you don’t have all the ingredients to hand. Indian food is all about Andaza (guesstimates) so do what feels right for you. Substitute if you need to and use my measurements as guidelines to work from!**
- Wash the dals 3-4 times and leave to soak for an hour or so or overnight. If you forget to soak them, you can just wash them and use them as they are, the only difference is a reduction in the cooking time when you soak them.
- Heat a wide heavy based pan and add 3 tbs of oil and the 2 finely chopped onions. Fry at a gentle sizzle for 20- 30 mins stirring occasionally to ensure that they don’t burn. You are looking for a light caramel colour. (See picture above) They are ready when they are transculent and the sugars are deepening and becoming sticky on the bottom of the pan. About 10-20 mins
- Turn the heat up slightly and add 1-2 tbsp butter or ghee. Allow to melt and then add the whole spices (cassia bark, black cardamon, black pepper, cumin and cloves. Saute until the cumin pops.
- Next add the ginger, garlic and green chili paste and cook for 2-3 mins. Do not let it stick to the bottom of the pan. If it starts to stick, add a little more butter/ghee or oil. It is important that the onions and garlic do not burn or brown too much as they will lose the sweetness and flavour that they impart to the dish. (See picture above)
- Next add the tomatoes and cook until the oil separates from the tomatoes. 3-5 mins
- Then add the powder spices- the tumeric, red chili powder, garam masala, coriander powder, kasoori methi, and salt. Cook for 1-2 mins to release the flavours.
- Now turn up the heat to the highest temperature and add the chicken. Coat the chicken pieces with the masala stirring well to ensure the masala does not touch down in the pan.
- Allow the meat to cook like this on high heat for about 1-2 mintues before adding the soaked dals with some water and then the aubergine and the sweet potato. Add enough water to cover all that is in the pan. Stir well and allow to come to a boil.
- Put a lid on and turn the heat down to a gentle simmer and cook for 35-45 mins or until the dal is done and the chicken is coming off the bone.
- While the dal is cooking take the sliced onions and fry them generously in oil until they are browned and crispy on the edges. Drain on kitchen paper and reserve.
- When the chicken is done and the meat is starting to fall of the bone, take a slotted spoon and remove all the chicken pieces from the dal and leave to the side so that they come to a temperature whereby you can handle them to remove the meat.
- Meanwhile take a potato masher as now the vegetables and dal will be very soft and roughly mash them in the pan. If you see any of the whole spices you can remove them from the pan. Check for seasoning and adjust if needed.
- When you are able to handle the chicken, take it off the bones in chunks/large shreds. Do not shred completely. Discard the bones and add the chicken back to the dal.
- Mix the chicken well. Check the consistency and add a little water if you feel it is too thick. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 mins.
- For the optional tempering stage- In a small frying pan take a 1-2 tsp butter and add 1 tsp of cumin seeds, 1 /2 tsp of garam masala and 1 tsp of kasoori methi and fry for a minute. After the chicken has simmered, pour onto the chicken and stir well.
- Garnish with finely chopped coriander and the fried onions. Serve with home made naan or roti, cucumber and yoghurt raita and some sliced sweet onions.
*A recipe for Naan will follow soon!