Dhaansaak part 2: Vagharaela chaawal

Dhaansaak part 2: Vagharaela chaawal

Brown onion pulao

Mr Todiwala's Bombay
Helen Cathcart

The best known recipe of great Parsee cooking – it’s the traditional Sunday roast. Dhaansaak is made up of two main parts: lamb with lentils, and rice. Each one can be used as an independent dish as well so I have kept each part separate. This will not only simplify things but make you understand the depth and intricacies of Indian cooking. Both masalas in the recipes can be prepared in larger quantities and kept for the future in sealed containers: the paste in the refrigerator, the dry mix in a dark store cupboard. The browned rice is good with other meat and poultry dishes too.

To a Parsee, dhaansaak is always made with lamb unless someone in the family does not eat lamb, or is a vegetarian. The accompaniments – the little lamb kebab balls and the kachumber (onion salad) are as important as the main part – a bit like having Yorkshire puddings and horseradish sauce with roast beef! Cooking dhaansaak is a painstaking affair but very straightforward if you follow each section methodically and it can be started the day before to enjoy the Sunday lunch (which is what we Parsees do). The end result can be a sheer achievement and if done well with go down as a masterpiece.

This recipe is part 2 of the dhaansaak: the 'dhaan' and piecing together of your dhaansaak.

You'll find part 1 of the dhaansaak recipe under 'Dhaansaak part 1: 'Masala ni daar saathy gos', as well part 3 under 'Dhaansaak part 3: Accompaniments'.



Quantity Ingredient
75ml sunflower or rapeseed oil
2.5 cm piece cinnamon stick
3-4 green cardamom pods, split
3-4 cloves
4-5 star anise
2 onions, halved and thinly sliced
500g basmati rice, washed and drained
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

Garam masala

Quantity Ingredient
3-4 green cardamom pods, split and seeds extracted
3-4 cloves
2-3 star anise
1 heaped teaspoon cumin seeds
8-10 black peppercorns
2-3 dried red chillies
2 teaspoons dried fenugreek leaves


Quantity Ingredient
1-2 onions, sliced
2 tablespoons sunflower or rapeseed oil
2 tablespoons coriander leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons mint leaves, chopped


  1. Heat the oil in a flameproof casserole and add the spices. Sauté for a minute or two over a medium heat until browned and fragrant. Add the onions and sauté gently until they are a deep brown, about 10 minutes.
  2. Add the rice and sauté for 5–6 minutes, turning regularly so that all the grains get evenly cooked and coated in the oil and onions.
  3. Add hot water up to 2.5 cm above the level of the rice, season with salt, stir well, bring back to the boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and cook gently for 15–20 minutes. Check occasionally, stirring gently from the bottom up with a flat wooden spatula and slowly add a little more water if necessary. Remove from the heat and set aside in the covered pot. I find that a more effective technique is to put the covered pot in middle shelf of a preheated oven. Cook for 20 minutes at a 130˚C heat and then switch off. If in doubt, use double the amount of water that there is to rice.
  4. Meanwhile, make the masala (this can be done in advance if preferred). Toast all the spices in a dry frying pan, stirring for a minute or two until fragrant. Cool then tip into a clean coffee grinder or small food processor (or use a mortar with a pestle or small bowl with the end of a rolling pin) and grind to a powder. Set aside.
  5. When nearly ready to serve, separate the sliced onions into rings. Heat the oil in a frying pan until hazy and sauté the onions over a high heat until crisp and golden. Drain on paper towels.
  6. Sprinkle the garam masala over the rested pulao and stir through gently.
  7. Garnish with the browned onions and chopped herbs and serve. This is your dhaan. It is also good served with any other daal or curry or, even, with just cooked chicken or prawns stirred through and heated thoroughly.
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