I love dhansak, arguably the most famous of Parsi dishes.
The other day I was at Fort and had just finished a Finely Chopped Walk when I into Ideal Corner for their wonderful Friday dhansak. A couple of walks back when Ideal had run out of dhansak I walked to Jimmy Boy for another excellent dhansak. I loved the sense of wholesomeness and motherly love that the dish gives. The fact that it soothes you and restores you and makes you feel happy and sunny once its settled in your tummy.
My love for dhansak is not just because I am married into a Parsi family. We rarely make dhansak at home and the one that’s made is a barely recognisable one made by our Muslim cook Banu. K doesn’t make it. It is not often made at my in laws. Mamma used to make a masala ni daal when she was alive but that’s dhansak dal without the meat. You can get her recipe here. We often order for Parsi food from folks such as Katy’s Kitchen on festive occasions at home but that’s when we call for pulao dal and not dhansak.
See, that’s the thing about dhansak. It’s a bit a of a Janus faced dish. On the one hand it is a Sunday afternoon favourite in Parsi houses. Best paired with beer I am told and followed up with a snooze. However, there is another side to dhansak. It is a dish which is also had during a period of mourning. Among Parsis it is had at the end of the four days after someone has passed away. The period in between is where one is supposed to not have red meat or chicken from what I understand. The fourth day has to be brought in with mutton. Ideally with mutton dhansak.
Till recently this was just a fact for me. Something I would mention in posts on dhansak to say why you would not expect to have dhansak on a festive occasion. Then one day this custom became a grim reality for us. Suddenly there was a bereavement in the family. My father in law passed away. The house was shrouded in grief. Over the next few days food was for sustenance and not pleasure. Neighbours would send us food as the fires in our kitchens had shut down. The toughest was to get my mother in law to eat. It still is.
Then the fourth day after daddy passed away came up. Dhansak had to be had. I was given the duty of arranging dhansak from either a restaurant or a caterer. There was hardly any cooking happening in our houses those days. Then our kaki (daddy’s sister in law) from next door came in and said ‘don’t get it from restaurants, we will make dhansak and send for you’.
So on the fourth day we sat down to dhansak that they sent over to our house. Suddenly the custom that I had spoken about in a dispassionate observer’s tone had become a grim reality in my own life. There was a death in our family. Someone who was among us till a few days back was no more. The light had gone out of our lives. Dhansak had truly become a funeral dish.
The lunch was a reminder of the tragedy that had befallen us. The hurt that we felt. The fact that we were grieving…for a husband, for a parent, for an in law.
Moments like these teach you that there is so much more to food that just sustenance or the mere act of eating. Food can have so many associations and memories entwined in it. Sometimes of happiness. Sometimes of grief. Of hope. Of despair. Of peace. Of pain.
For me that afternoon dhansak was no longer just a dish.
Life would never be the same again. As it wouldn’t be for any of us at the table, eating silently, lost in wistful thoughts.
I still love dhansak. It’s just that something has changed.
Coincidentally, my friend Rhea, another Bengali married to a Parsi recently wrote about dhansak after her father in law passed away. Here’s the link to her post