What is a Chicken Dhansak? | A Top 10 Curry with Lentils!

If you are a little bit bored of the ‘old favourites’ and are looking for a change, you are in for a treat. What is Chicken Dhansak? Saucy, spicy, sweet and delicious. Oh, and it is made with lentils too, so it is really filling. Today we will take a detailed look at Dhansak, tell you how it is made and tell you how hot it is.

Stuck for Time? | What is Chicken Dhansak?

When served in the UK, Dhansak is a relatively mild spiced curry dish made with a mix of precooked cubed chicken and a thick and tasty lentil sauce. The sauce is quite thick and is a pale orangey-yellow in colour.

On a scale of 1 – 10, where 1 is mild, and 10 is really spicy, a Dansak would be about a 3 or perhaps a 4. It isn’t very spicy at all, as the recipe doesn’t normally contain a huge amount of chilli. It’s a great recipe if you are looking to make curry for those sensitive to spice.

You might think lentils are a bit boring… You’d be wrong. Dhansak is one of the tastiest curries around. It is normally quite sweet with a hint of sharpness. Some chefs even include chunks of pineapple in the recipe.

If you want to learn more, read on!

Where Does Dhansak Come from?

Dhansak is a true multicultural dish. It is a real fusion food! There are plenty of influences as one country brought one ingredient, then it was modified, exported and added to. Dhansak has a background going back over 1200 years!

It is thought that the original Dhansak was exported to India by Persian refugees who fled across the Arabic sea. When they arrived, they introduced the Indian subcontinent to cooking stews with lentils.

The Portuguese arrived in India sometime in the 16th century. They introduced the continent to chilli, pumpkin, and tomatoes (borrowed from the Spanish). These ingredients feature in the Indian version of the dish to this day.

The British Indian restaurant version more than likely came to the shores of the UK during the 60s and 70s when curry house culture boomed in the UK. The dish was modified, added to and adapted to suit the British palette.

The word Dhansak is actually a meeting of two separate words combined. “Dhan” in Gujarati loosely translates as ‘grains’ or perhaps ‘cereal’. “Sak” is a loose translation of the Indian word for vegetable… “Dhan - Sak” = grains and vegetables!

When you eat a spoonful of Dhansak, you are eating a curry whose heritage has crossed oceans, continents and time.

What is Chicken Dhansak Made of?

There are plenty of tasty ingredients in a chicken dhansak. In each bowlful of this super tasty curry, you will find: -

  • Garlic and Ginger
  • Dry spices like mixed curry powder and a hint of chilli powder
  • Tomato
  • A base of stewed lentils
  • Onion base gravy
  • Tender chunks of meat such as chicken or lamb
  • A fruit-based additive such as mango juice, pineapple juice or even sugar!
  • A hint of citruses such as lemon or tamarind

You’ll note from the above that it does contain a little chilli. This varies from place to place and recipe to recipe, so, if in doubt, ask. The dish can sometimes be spicy, especially if you are ordering a takeaway.

What does a Dhansak Taste Like

The British Indian restaurant version of Dhansak has a very unique taste. It is normally served as a saucy curry laden with chunks of stewed meat. The most popular choices tend to be chicken Dhansak or lamb Dhansak.

Dhansak is a slightly sweet curry. You’ll notice from the ingredients above that it often contains a little fruit juice. Many places tend to use acidic tasting, yet sweet, fruits such as mango or pineapple. My old restaurant used to include chunks of mango in their Dhansak!

The acidity and sweetness are further added to by the tomato base. The puree is cooked down until thick and adds an acidic note along with a squeeze of lemon juice.

The savoury elements come from the inclusion of mixed powder and the base gravy, which is added during the cooking process. If you’ve read my article on base gravy, you’ll know that this is made from stewed onions, combined with other vegetables and spices.

The star of the show with a Dhansak is the lentils.

Let me put it like this…

If there aren’t lentils, it ain’t a Dhansak.

It’s that simple.

The lentils are normally stewed until they start to break up and turn really soft. They work well to thicken the curry and give it a really distinctive deep golden colour. There isn’t a massive amount of lentils, and you’ll find a little goes a long way. All that said, Dhansak isn’t a ‘loose’ curry. Think of it as a thick stew.

Is a Dhansak Spicy?

Traditionally Dhansak isn’t too spicy.

But wait…

Didn’t you just say that there is chilli included?

Well, yes. Some recipes do use chilli powder. However, there isn’t a lot in this dish! If you’ve read my article on how to cool down hot curry, you’ll have noticed that adding pulses or lentils removes some of the heat from the dish.

The chilli powder included in most Dhansak recipes is to add a little flavour and colour instead of spicy heat.

What Curry is Like Dhansak?

If you like the sound of a Dhansak but want to consider your options, you are in the right place. There are a few things that you can order that are pretty similar.

My first choice as a Dhansak alternative would be Pathia. It has a very similar taste profile and features a sweet and sour note combined with chunks of stewed meat. However, there are no lentils in a pathia.

Any others?

The other option if you like lentils is to go for something like a Dal tadka. This is a very lightly spiced dish made entirely from lentils. It is delicately flavoured with turmeric and garam masala. Dal is the Hindi word for split lentils. The tadka is the name given to a hot oil mixture full of garlic, cumin, and toasted seeds poured over the dish just before serving.

Dal tadka is wonderfully filling and great to eat with chapatis or roti.

What is the Tastiest Curry?

While it might not be spicy, Dhansak is about as tasty as it gets. It is certainly not a boring dish. There are so many elements. You have salty, savoury, sweet and sour. One thing is for certain, you’ll be mopping your plate with naan bread once you have finished the curry!

What is a Chicken Dhansak | Final Thoughts

What is a chicken Dhansak? Sweet, savoury and delicious! It is a curry that is rich in history and flavours! It features chunks of juicy meat, a savoury and sweet sauce that is thickened with stewed lentils. Go easy on the naan, as this one is really filling? Did you think a Dhansak should be spicy, or would you expect it to be mild? Let me know in the comments. I love curry chat!

Enjoy Making Curry Yourself?

Hey folks, thanks for reading this article. I hope you found it useful, and that you learned something new allowing you to make your curry extra special. Here are a few things that can really elevate your curry game to the next level. 

These are affiliate links, so if you use them I receive a small commission, but this won't cost you any extra. In all honesty, I use very similar items myself, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend them to my friends.

A Complete Curry Kit: - Literally, everything you'll need to make curry all in one place. Cookware, storage, utensils, even the spices! This is my dedicated guide to getting you up and running all for the price of few takeaways.

Curry pans: - You need one, and one only. A frying pan exactly like this is really easy to use, and is exactly the type that authentic Indian chefs use to make the type of curry that you'll have in your local takeaway. You can see my full reviews of several pans right here...

Spice Storage: - Being organised is half the battle in making great curry. Spices can be notoriously hard to keep tidy. That's why I tend to use a spice rack like this. You can arrange your spices by size, heat, or any way you choose. I've got a detailed review of several Indian spice racks in this guide.

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