Like most Brits, I am obsessed with Indian food, and when I lived in London, we would eat curry almost once a week. The very first curry I tried in my teens was a prawn dhansak, and although I’ve zig-zagged through the menu a lot since then, it’s the dish I always return to. The menus in Indian restaurants usually inform me that it is a Parsi dish, which means it was brought to India by Zoroastrians from Persia. Beyond that, I know nothing about it, except that it is a delectable study in contrasts, balancing sweet and sour flavors with the heat of chillies and juxtaposing soft, creamy lentils with fat, juicy prawns. The red lentils in this dish cook down to a mush, though you could add more robust lentils for a bit of a bite. Anglo-Indian restaurants often use canned pineapple to add sweetness, but butternut squash or pumpkin is more usual in Indian recipes, and it lends an extra creamy texture and a less aggressive sweetness to the lentils.
Serves: 4 | Active time: 45 minutes
For the lentils
For the spice paste
8 black peppercorns
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons garam masala
5 cloves garlic
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1–2 serrano chillies, deseeded and chopped
For the curry
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or ghee
2 medium onions, diced
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon tamarind paste (or juice of two limes + 1 tablespoon brown or palm sugar)
1 cup fresh tomatoes, chopped (or 1/2 14 ounce can crushed tomatoes)
6 cardamom pods
1 pound prawns, peeled (any size, though butterflied if large)
1 tablespoon ghee (optional), to finish
Handful of cilantro, chopped, to garnish
Put the lentils and butternut squash into a small saucepan with the turmeric and mint leaves and pour on water until just covered. Bring to the boil, cover the pan, and gently simmer 15–20 minutes until the lentils and squash are soft and have absorbed most of the water. Add more water during cooking if the mix gets too dry and starts to stick.
While the lentils are cooking, make the spice paste. Grind the peppercorns, mustard seeds, cinnamon, coriander, and garam masala together in a spice grinder or pestle and mortar. Add the garlic, ginger, and chillies and grind everything together to make an aromatic paste. Add a splash of water to loosen if required.
For the curry, heat the oil or ghee in a skillet and fry the diced onions with the salt over a medium heat for about 10 minutes, until they are golden brown and caramelized. Indian cooking requires onions to be cooked longer than is usual in Western cuisine, which brings out all the sweet flavors. Just be vigilant to make sure the onions don’t burn.
Add the spice paste to the onions and continue frying for about 5 minutes until the spices smell fragrant and the oil separates out. Again, be careful not to let the paste burn. Add the tamarind paste (or lime juice and sugar) and stir in the tomatoes and whole cardamom pods. Fry everything together gently for a further 5 minutes. Add the lentil mixture and cook, covered, for a further 10 minutes, adding a cup of warm water if the curry is very thick. (The curry should be very creamy but not soupy.) Add the prawns and cook for another 5 minutes until pink. Remove the cardamom pods, top with the remaining ghee and garnish with chopped cilantro.
Serve with basmati rice, naan bread, or some sautéed spinach if you’re low-carbing.