Monday, June 29, 2009

Dansak: a Parsee treat I just tasted

For Fathers' Day, my daughter Rachel took me, along with Christina and Rachel's husband Steve, to one of my earlier favorite Indian restaurants, Mirch Masala in Decatur. The quick news is that the food is as good again as it once was before drifting for a while.

A dish on the menu that caught my eye was Dansak, a chicken and lentil-based curry that comes from the Parsee people of Eastern India. This prosperous minority community descended from the Persians who fled to India with their ancient Zoroastrian religion a millenium ago as Islam swept over Persia. I've often read about the dish, now a regional Indian classic, but never actually tasted it till that night.

Being surprised and excited at how rich a dish with lentils in the sauce can be, I came up with a way of making it. It was guineapigged yesterday on a visiting niece and her boyfriend, then today on the St. Bart's staff meeting. Since it was well received, here it is.

The recipe serves six, with leftovers.

Dansak -- Parsee Chicken and Lentil Curry

1 cup red ("Egyptian" or "masoor dal") lentils
3 pounds chicken thighs, with skin and bones
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
5 teaspoons turmeric, divided
3 teaspoons salt, divided
1 large onion, chopped
1/4 cup canola oil
1 inch fresh ginger, pounded or minced finely with garlic
4 cloves garlic, pounded or minced finely with ginger
2 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste (1/4 of a 6-ounce can -- freeze the rest)
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups water
Chopped cilantro for garnish

Rinse lentils. Soak in a bowl in plenty of warm water, at least 30 minutes.

With cleaver on cutting board, strip skin and excess fat from chicken (make broth with them for other use). Chop thighs through bone into three pieces, and cut part of meat off the largest piece. Mix chicken with lemon juice, 2 teaspoons turmeric and 1 teaspoon salt. Let marinate, mixing occasionally, as sauce cooks.

Slowly fry onion in oil until becoming golden brown, stirring occasionally. Fry in garlic and ginger over reduced heat, 2 minutes. Stir in tomato paste.

Add remaining 3 remaining teaspoons turmeric, the cumin, coriander, fennel, cayenne and black pepper. Stir and fry gently until fragrant, several minutes.

Drain lentils, and add to onion-spice mixture, along with 2 cups water. Simmer, stirring frequently and scraping bottom of pan, until lentils are becoming tender (15-20 minutes). Add a little water if too dry.

When lentils are becoming tender, add marinated chicken plus 2 teaspoons salt. Simmer everything together, scraping bottom of pan often. As juice comes out of chicken, the sauce will become soupier. But if too dry, add a little water. Simmer until chicken is tender, about 20 minutes.

Taste, and add salt, if needed. Cover pan, turn off heat, and let curry cool slowly - which will finish cooking the chicken. Reheat to serve, checking salt and adding some if needed.

Accompany with basmati rice and plain yogurt. Sprinkle curry generously with chopped cilantro.

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