A curry that has it all, chicken, lentils, fragrant spices and tempting sweet and sour notes, Slow Cooker Chicken Dhansak is full of flavour. A really satisfying dish and perfect for fake-away night!
Origination of Chicken Dhansak
Dhansak takes inspiration from both India and the Middle East. It fuses the traditional use of spices in curries with the use of sweet and sour aspects from fruit which is commonplace in Persian cuisine. This creates a dish which has interesting layers of flavour, as well as texture.
Dhansak was originally made from richer, tougher meats such as mutton or goat, however it has evolved to satisfy more modern tastes and chicken is widely used instead.
It also included a blend of lentils which were cooked long enough to be broken down thickening the curry, perhaps so it stretched that bit further amongst people! Fruit was added to introduce a sweet, tart aspect and vegetables such as tomatoes, potato, onion and squash were also included.
Dhansak curries contain an array of spices to create an enticing aroma. It’s now a favourite on restaurant menus and the long cooking time means it turns out beautifully in the slow cooker as well.
Why Make This Recipe?
- A delicious option for fake-away night.
- It’s full of vitamins from healthy vegetables and pulses.
- Freezes well so a batch can be stored for future meals.
- Dhansak curries are usually made to a medium heat but it’s easy to alter the heat of the curry to satisfy all palates.
- Frying pan and stove.
- Slow Cooker, this was cooked in a Crockpot TimeSelect Digital 5.6L Slow Cooker .
What You’ll Need
Exact ingredient quantities can be found in the recipe card at the bottom of the page.
Chicken– Chicken thighs.
Lentils– Chana dal are one of the traditional choices of lentils, they are larger and look like split peas. Red lentils are an excellent alternative.
Vegetables– As well as onion and garlic, potato and butternut squash add a fresh, sweet flavour.
Fruit- Pineapples are added as they are tart and sweet and hold their shape over long cooking times so are perfect to combine in savoury recipes. A tin of pineapple chunks in natural juice is used.
Spices– The mix of spices creates an amazing fusion with the meat, vegetables, fruit and pulses. It includes garam masala, turmeric, ginger, fenugreek, cumin, coriander and chilli. Green cardamom pods bring a fresh, citrus note.
Seasoning- Salt, stock, sugar.
In traditional dhansak recipes Asafoetida can also be added. This is not always available in shops so I have imitated the flavour with a combination of garlic and onion granules and celery salt. If you do have it at home you can use a small amount of this instead.
Liquid- Tinned chopped tomatoes and tomato puree make up the base of the sauce along with the pineapple juice and water added with the stock cube.
Oil– A small amount of vegetable or light olive oil to fry the vegetables and ground spices in.
How To Make It
- Chop the onion, potato and butternut squash into 1-2 cm cubes. Fry these over a medium heat in a little oil for 2-3 minutes. Add a small amount of water to further sweat the vegetables for a few minutes. Then add the herbs, spices and garlic and fry for 3 minutes. This step serves to soften the vegetables and add depth of flavour, however if you are pressed for time it can be omitted and the raw ingredients added to the slow cooker instead!
- Remove the vegetables from the heat and add to the slow cooker. Place the remaining ingredients in the pot except for the lemon and mix well. Cook for 6 hours on high or 8 hours on low.
Once cooked through squeeze over the juice from the lemon, stir well and serve.
As Chicken Dhansak contains meat, pulses and vegetables it’s quite a substantial curry so I never go to any lengths with the side dishes. A bowl of plain basmati rice and a little lime chutney work perfectly to supplement the flavours of the curry.
If you are having a fake-away night with friends you may also want to serve up an alternative dish. Slow Cooker Lamb Rogan Josh or Slow Cooker Beef Madras are both bold enough to be ideal partners for Chicken Dhansak.
Lentils. The use of split red lentils will make a smoother sauce as they will more easily breakdown when cooking. Other options to Chana are whole tinned chickpeas, or Toor Dal.
Meat. Chicken breast can also be used in this dish but be aware it does need a shorter cooking time to avoid it drying out and keep the pieces fairly large.
Instead of chicken why not try chunks of lamb?
Vegetarian Dhansak. Omit the meat from this recipe to make a delicious vegetarian dhansak. There are plenty of vegetables and lentils to provide sustenance. If doing this you should also change the stock cube to vegetable.
Vegetables. Alternatives vegetables could be sweet potato and courgette or pumpkin.
Fry the spices. Pre-ground spices (rather than whole) are used in this recipe as this is an easier and quicker option. Saying that, it’s still good to heat them for a short time with the onions, garlic and vegetables so their flavour fully permeates and their aroma is as pungent as possible.
Size of the vegetables. Cut the potatoes and squash in cubes of around 1-2 cm to ensure they cook through in the allocated time, once cooked they should be very tender in the sauce.
Cooking times. This dish is perfect for a long slow cook as it gives time for the lentils to really break down into the sauce and the vegetables to become nicely softened.
Any leftovers can be transferred to an airtight container or bag and stored in the fridge for up to three days or freezer for up to three months. Allow to thaw and reheat thoroughly.
Dhansak curries are full flavoured with sweet and sour notes and a medium level of heat from spice.
Spices are usually toasted whole before they are ground. Applying heat to the spices melts the oils in them thereby intensifying their flavours.
The traditional recipe actually has a blend of lentils, namely chana dal, and red and brown masoor dals. More modern recipe’s usually include one type of lentil, this recipe uses Chana Dal.
Chana Dal literally translates to ‘split chickpeas’.
When making a Dhansak you can substitute Dhana dal lentils for red split lentils which are often more readily available in super markets.
It is a spice which originated from ancient Persia. It is derived from the root sap of giant Fennel plants and is commonly bought dried and ground. It is prized for it’s distinct earthy, oniony flavour as well as the health qualities it is thought to possess. It isn’t so commonplace in European cuisine but is used in Indian and Persian recipes.
Slow Cooker Chicken Dhansak
- 1 Frying Pan
- 500 g (1.1 lb) chicken thighs skinless and boneless
- 150 g (0.75 cups) potato 1 white, medium sized potato
- 280 g (2 cups) butternut squash ⅓ of a large butternut squash
- 190 g (1.25 cups) onion 1 large white onion
- 4 garlic cloves minced
- ½ lemon juice only
- 1 tin chopped tomatoes
- 1 tin pineapple chunks 435g tin (both the fruit and juice)
- 180 g (1 cups) chana dal dried
- 1 stock cube chicken
- 4 tbsp tomato puree
- 1 tsp sugar soft brown sugar
- 2 tbsp oil vegetable or light olive
- 425 ml (0.9 pt) water
- 1½ tsp salt
- 1½ tbsp cardamom pods green
- 1 tbsp coriander dried leaf
- 1 tbsp garam masala
- 2½ tsp chilli powder
- 2 tsp cumin
- 1½ tsp fenugreek
- 1½ tsp ginger ground or freshly minced
- ½ tsp garlic powder see recipe note 4
- ½ tsp celery salt see recipe note 4
- 1 tsp onion powder see recipe note 4
- Peel the potatoes, onion and squash and dice into 1-2cm cubes. Place these in a frying pan (skillet) over a medium heat with the oil. Allow to cook gently for 2-3 minutes. Add the spice mix and minced garlic and stir to coat the vegetables in the flavours, allow the spices to toast for a few minutes (see recipe note 1).Note: Frying the spices and vegetables in this and the following steps serve to add depth of flavour but are not essential. If preferred, the raw vegetables and spices can go straight into the slow cooker and then proceed with step 3 below.
- Add 75ml of the water and sweat the vegetables for a further 3 minutes until the water is absorbed, the vegetables are slightly softened and the onions translucent. Remove from the heat and transfer the mixture to the slow cooker.
- Cut the chicken thighs (see recipe note 2) into thirds then add these, the remaining water, the dal (see recipe note 3) and all of the other ingredients except for the lemon into the slow cooker. Stir gently to ensure everything is mixed and the dal and vegetables are submerged in the liquid. Cook on high for 6 hours or low for 7-8 hours.
- Once the dhansak is cooked, stir through gently. The lentils should be very soft and should be breaking down into the sauce. The other vegetables should be very tender. Squeeze the juice of half the lemon into the curry, stir well and serve.
- The spices need to heat through gently, stir whilst cooking so that they do not stick to the pan or burn.
- Don’t cut the chicken thighs into smaller pieces than thirds as the meat will become very tender over the cooking period and smaller pieces are more likely to break down. This size is large enough to ensure the chicken is distributed throughout the curry without losing shape.
- Follow the manufacturers guidance on the packet for preparation of the dal, wash it thoroughly.
- These ingredients are added (garlic, onion and celery salt granules) as a means to emulate another spice, Asafoetida. If you do have this particular spice, omit this blend and use 1/2 tsp of this instead.