This British Indian restaurant style recipe for chicken dhansak is rich and savoury from the lentils with sweet and sour notes and a fruity twist. Easy to make from scratch, this chicken dhansak makes a great weeknight curry.
The classic bases for a curry sauce are onion, tomato, spinach or lentil, and surely the best-known and best-loved lentil curry is dhansak.
- leftover chicken curry, one of my favourite leftover chicken recipes
- tender and delicious slow cooker chicken curry is easy and hands-off
- savoury, spicy and not too hot, enjoy this chicken bhuna
Dhansak consists of meat (or more rarely vegetables) in a savoury lentil gravy with aromatic spices, herbs and sweet and sour fruity notes for a real comfort food curry and it is one that we love.
Traditional recipes for chicken dhansak can be quite complicated with a lengthy list of spices to be incorporated and that is great if you have the time and aspire to really mastering authentic Indian cuisine.
I like a recipe that is less intimidating for those of us who didn’t grown up cooking that way, so this is an easy version of a chicken dhansak that can be made from scratch in the evening after work.
My chicken dhansak recipe is, as ever, a British Indian restaurant style curry with ingredients that are easy to find here and a simplified spicing. And while in India that fruity sweet and sour note might come from jaggery and tamarind or lime juice, I have followed the practice of so many of my excellent local curry houses and used pineapple.
I know, it’s controversial. If that feels a bit too Hawaiian pizza, you can leave it out, adding a little sugar and some extra liquid. More on that below.
What is dhansak?
Dhansak dishes are part of the cuisine of the Indian Parsis, a Zoroastrian minority with roots in early Medieval Persia and strong links to the west of India, in Maharashtra and Gujarat.
Most traditionally, this soothing lentil curry is made with mutton, though chicken dhansak dishes have a long history too and can be found in records from the early 19th century.
A comfort dish, it is associated with slow weekend cooking (allowing for long simmering) and is traditionally used to end a period of abstinence from meat following a bereavement.
Why make chicken dhansak
- a delicious comfort dish
- easy to make
- adaptable, affordable recipe
- homemade is healthy and just the way you like it!
Chicken dhansak ingredients
- Chicken thighs – off the bone and cut into chunks. I favour thighs over other cuts for the full flavour and moist meat.
- Onions – ordinary brown/yellow onions
- Garlic and ginger paste – or failing that, the (more expensive) individual tubes of each. Freshly crushed garlic and ginger works too but don’t use dried or powdered versions in this recipe.
- Dry powdered spices – chilli powder, garam masala, curry powder, turmeric, cumin and coriander. I used a medium chilli powder but you can use mild or if you prefer and adjust the quantity and balance of spices to taste.
- Canned tomatoes – choose decent tomatoes, as sometimes the cheapest versions can taste watery or metallic
- Canned pineapple – in juice, not syrup. If the fruit comes in rings, cut it into chunks.
- Ghee or oil (not shown) – I like to use the traditional ghee for frying when cooking an Indian-style curry. I make my own but it is easy to buy a can. Ghee will keep for ages in the fridge and has a lovely toasted nutty flavour.
You could use a flavourless oil instead. I prefer to avoid these, however, as they are often heavily refined. I use only extra virgin cold pressed oils.
- Coriander leaf (cilantro) and green chillies (optional) – for garnish
Garlic and ginger paste
This saves so much time and for me, it is the cornerstone of easy Indian cooking. I strongly recommend keeping some in the house if you enjoy curry.
You can buy large jars cheaply at the local Asian convenience store and it will keep in the fridge for quite a while. Depending on where you shop you can buy a jar of mixed ginger and garlic, or individual jars of just the one ingredient.
If you don’t cook spicy food on a regular basis portion, into an ice cube tray, freeze and then pop out into a plastic bag or tub.
How to make chicken dhansak – step by step
Before you start, read my step-by-step instructions, with photos, hints and tips so you can make this chicken dhansak recipe perfectly every time.
Scroll down for the recipe card with quantities and more tips at the bottom of the page.
Step One – Peel and dice the onions. Heat your ghee or oil in a large pan and sauté the onion over a gentle heat for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly until golden. Add a pinch of salt half way through.
Step Two – Add the spices and the garlic and ginger paste to the pan. Fry for another minute or so until they are fragrant (take care not to burn anything).
Step Three – Now introduce the chicken to the pan and stir well to coat it in the spices. Fry for a few minutes more.
Step Four – Add the canned tomatoes, lentils, tomato puree and the juice from the pineapple (reserve the fruit for later). Fill the empty tomato can about half full with water, swirl to loosen any remaining tomato and add. Stir well.
Bring to a gentle simmer and cover the pot. Turn the heat right down, using a diffuser on the stove if you need it to keep the heat low and even.
Cook for 25–30 minutes, stirring from time to time and adding extra water if the lentils start to look dry. Continue until the lentils are cooked and falling apart.
Step Five – Add the pineapple chunks and stir in. If you like, you can finish the curry by stirring a knob of butter through too. I find that the butter adds flavour and a velvet smoothness to the sauce.
Garnish with some coriander leaf and sliced chilli. Serve hot.
- Adapt the spicing to taste.
- To make this chicken dhansak recipe without the pineapple, add a tablespoon of honey and 120 ml (half a cup) of water.
- You can add vegetables to your chicken dhansak. Butternut squash, pumpkin or sweet potato works well, added with the lentils, and you can stir in some spinach leaves towards the end of cooking.
This chicken dhansak recipe is ideal for making ahead of time and most curry, may actually benefit from it, as the flavours have longer to infuse the meat.
Fridge – Allow to cool, and pack into a sealable container. You can keep it in the fridge for up to 3 days, or freeze for 3 months. Defrost (from frozen) and reheat in a pan on the stove top, or heat in the microwave, making sure it is properly hot before serving. You may find that you need to add a little water.
Freezer – Cool and pack into an airtight container. Store your chicken dhansak curry in the freezer for up to 3 months. To use, defrost and reheat in a pan on the stove top, or heat in the microwave, making sure it is properly hot before serving.
Hints and tips
- You can’t hurry curry! Don’t try and speed things up by not frying the onions properly – so much flavour comes from them.
- Fresh spices are best – they do go stale and lose their flavour eventually, but equally can last years after their best before date. If they don’t have a clear smell when you open the jar then ditch them and buy new. Also all brands differ so you may need more or less. I usually cook with common or supermarket brands when developing recipes for the blog.
- This chicken dhansak is a rare instance of a dish where it does not help to brown the meat at the outset. You want it to absorb the sauce, and to release juices, so do not seal the meat in this way.
- Curry is so often better made the day before and reheated. If you cook for two like I do for the majority of the time, it is one of those dishes where it is better to double or treble up and freeze for another night. Cook once, eat twice or more.
Chicken dhansak is spicy and savoury but not normally a hot dish. On the curry house menu, it will usually be listed as a medium or even mild dish. Obviously it is up to you whether you want to add heat.
As far as I can tell, pineapple is traditional in dhansak served in Indian restaurants outside India, but not so much in the subcontinent! Think of it like deep pan pizza. It’s not traditionally Italian but that really doesn’t matter, as it’s a dish that so many people love.
Many cooks do use a combination of different types of lentil in chicken dhansak but if you are cooking them from scratch, this will require a longer cooking time. Red lentils are the fastest to cook and easiest to deal with, so for this easy chicken dhansak recipe, stick to red lentils.
The traditional accompaniments are kachumber, a chopped salad of onion, cucumber, tomato and herbs, and basmati rice cooked with caramelized onions and sugar. I tend to serve turmeric rice instead, but you could also opt for naan, roti and vegetable curries.
More curry recipes
- Slow cooker lamb curry – the slow cooker is perfect for curries and this one is rich and delicious
- Easy slow cooker beef curry – an unusual traditional curry that’s full of flavour
- Chicken bhuna – deliciously savoury
- Chickpea curry – a vegan favourite
- Explore my favourite Indian Curry Recipes
- 2 tbsp ghee (or neutral flavoured oil)
- 2 onions
- 2 tsp garlic and ginger puree
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp curry powder
- ½ tsp chilli powder
- 4 (400 g) chicken thighs
- 1 can tomatoes
- 100 g red lentils
- 1 tbsp tomato puree
- 1 small can (227 g) pineapple (in juice, not syrup)
- 1 knob butter
- 1 handful coriander leaf
- 1 green finger chilli (sliced)
- Peel and dice the onions. Heat your ghee or oil in a large pan and sauté the onion over a gentle heat for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly until golden.2 onions, 2 tbsp ghee
- Add the spices and the garlic and ginger paste to the pan. Fry for another minute until fragrant.2 tsp garlic and ginger puree, 1 tsp garam masala, 1 tsp turmeric, 1 tsp ground coriander, 1 tsp ground cumin, 1 tsp curry powder, ½ tsp chilli powder
- Add the chicken to the pan and stir well to coat it in the spices. Fry for a few minutes longer.4 chicken thighs
- Add the canned tomatoes, lentils, tomato puree, the juice from the pineapple and half a can of water. Stir well.1 can tomatoes, 100 g red lentils, 1 tbsp tomato puree, 1 small can pineapple
- Bring to a gentle simmer and cover the pot. Turn the heat right down, using a diffuser on the stove if you need it to keep the heat low and even.
- Cook for 25–30 minutes, stirring from time to time and adding extra water if the lentils start to look dry. Continue until the lentils are cooked and falling apart.
- Add the pineapple chunks and stir in. If you like, you can finish the curry by stirring a knob of butter through too.1 knob butter
- Garnish with some coriander leaf and sliced chilli. Serve hot.1 handful coriander leaf, 1 green finger chilli