Why dhansak will never taste the same again

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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

Comments

Amitabha Ghosh said…
Wonderfully written and indeed very touching ...
BombayJules said…
I am sorry the connotations have changed for you regarding dhansak. It is still one of my favourite Parsi dishes or Indian dishes full stop. I would like to write about it on my blog at some point now you have mentioned that it is a funeral dish...in the UK it is just another curry-house staple that people will not know the true meaning of. Thanks for a lovely post. best wishes
dianabhathena said…
A lovely post made me recall how we had to have dhansak made when our gran passed away - but also makes me think about how it was one of the things we looked forward to enjoying with her every sunday when she was with us - and im sure each parsi family will have a happy story about dhansak as well - look at it as something you are happy about - also - its not an easy dish to make well - not everyone gets it right :) PS - awesome post - will come back for more :)
Perzen Patel said…
A lovely post Kalyan and once again a touching tribute to your father-in-law. For me, Dhansak, Kebabs and countless other Parsi favourites are linked with nostalgic stories (such as Mamaiji making curry rice for me every saturday or Grandpa sneaking me a kebab when mom wasn't looking) so I can connect and genuinely feel that food - much more than photos of those passed - is a spectacular way to remember those we have lost and perhaps in some small way reconnect with those happy times.
May said…
I love dhansak and will never eatone without thinking of its origins again.
Priyanka Mitra said…
This is what makes food so much more than just fuel for our bodies.

I hope your mom in law is coming to terms with the loss. Hugs to her. Hope u and Lady K stay strong through all of this.
The knife said…
@Amitabha: thanks

@BombayJules: It is a lovely dish and is so much more than just a dish

@dianabhathena...thanks and hop to see you here again. I guess dhansak is like life. It's got its good moments and the not so good ones

@Perzen: so true. the other day I was having favourite dish, dosa, ordered from his favourite restaurant when at his place and was feeling his presence

@May: yes, it's a lovely dish

@Priyanka, we are trying to be there for mom. It's tough for her. Thanks for your wishes
poorna banerjee said…
I constantly get asked by people in Kolkata why the Parsis don't make Dhansak more popular, and I am sick of telling them why. Thank you Kalyan, next time, I will direct them to this link.
Chef Mireille said…
what a well written post and so interesting how memories and feelings can be attached to food
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