Caramelized Brown Rice (Vagharela Chawal)

It puzzled me to no end.

My best friend was a good student, good athlete, loved the arts, and was crazy about Neil Patrick Harris in Doogie Howser M.D. In short, she was a completely normal young teenage girl. But the way she ate her lunch was far from ordinary.

My sister and I lived close enough to school to go home at lunch-time. Most days mom would have a hot meal ready for us. There were some days though, when she was going to be out, she would let us take a packed lunch to school. I looked forward to those rare days because it meant I could spend more time with my friends. It also meant we could share lunches if we wanted to.

Some days I’d sit with a friend whose grandma brought her lunch to school for her everyday. I marvelled at the energy of that wonderful lady who was one of the spriest grannies I knew. (God bless her soul) She brought a hot lunch for both her grand-daughters and made me adore her even more when she let me share their little fried papads.

I spent most other packed lunch days in the company of my best friend. My lunch was usually chapatis and rice or an omelet sandwich. I carried a dry lunch, so there were no dals or curries, nothing that could leak and ruin my precious homework. Tinaz’s lunch, on the other hand, was brought to school by one of the wonderful dabbawallis who picked up lunches and delivered them to school. So she could have anything she liked. She ate a proper rice lunch most days. How she ate it had me questioning her ability to taste things. She would plate her rice and cover it with dal. Then she’d grab a couple of the sugar sachets that her mom packed for her and proceed to sprinkle them over the dal. For the longest time, I thought it was salt so I never questioned it. Two sachets of salt – that to my crazy, salt-loving self was far more plausible than wanting sugar on your dal. I bet she remembers the horrified look on my face when I figured out it was sugar. I just did not get it…until the day I ate dhansak at her house. Then her dal and sugar obsession became perfectly clear.

The flavour of this caramelized rice, this is what she was used to and what she tried to replicate at lunch. It is an unusual thing, but so very delicious. The sugar slightly sweetens the rice, not in a sugar rice or kheer kind of way, but just enough to tinge it with notes of caramel. The synergy of all that spice with the sugar and ghee is magic.

Don’t walk away from the stove once the sugar has been added. What is caramelly and bubbly can very easily burn and go bitter if it is not watched. Since the trial with dhansak, we’ve eaten this with other dals and it goes quite well. We used brown rice instead of white for this because that’s what we had. You can use basmati rice, which is used otherwise. The amount of water noted in the recipe is what works to cook the rice that we had. Make sure it works for what rice you will use.

Caramelized Brown Rice (Vagharela Chawal)
Adapted lightly from My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King
Makes 6 servings

Brown Rice – 2 cups
Water – 3-1/2 cups
Ghee (or clarified butter/oil) – 2 tbsp
Cumin Seeds – 2 tsp
Cloves – 4
Cinnamon sticks – 2
Green Cardamom – 6
Peppercorn – 12
Onion – 1, finely diced
Brown Sugar – 3 tbsp
Salt – 2 tsp

– Place a heavy-bottom saucepan, one with a tight-fitting lid, over medium heat and add the ghee.
– Once the ghee heats a bit, add all of the spices and fry to bloom the spices.
– Add the onion, stirring to fry until it goes golden.
– At this point, add the sugar and stir until sugar begins to caramelize and the contents of the pan start colouring brown and getting bubbly.
– Add the salt, then add the rice. Add the water and stir the contents of the pan to mix everything well.
– Bring the water to a boil, then lower the heat and cover to cook until all the water is gone.
– Remove from the heat and allow the rice to rest and cool down a bit.

Fluff the rice and serve with dhansak dal.


  1. arundati

    i always had non leakable food too… and my friends thought my mother did what they referred to as “airline” packing because she would put in tissue/ napkin and cutlery if needed and cut fruit and a toothpick to eat it with! school lunches!

    • Sharmila

      So neat! I’ll bet I made you feel wonderfully taken care of when you opened your lunchbox. I know my mom’s neat packing always did that for me.