Bisi bele bhath or Hot vegetable and lentil rice

Bisi (pronounced : be+see) bele (pronounced : bay+lay) bhath (pronounced : bath) is an old stalwart in the Bangalorean/Kannada kitchen. Simply put, it is a one pot dish consisting of rice, yellow lentils (split pigeon peas or toor dal), assorted vegetables and optional dollops of ghee/butter. It is one of those dishes that will always be dear to my heart and my taste buds and I’m very glad my husband loves it too. My version has red-skinned peanuts in it which my mum would absolutely shun but hey, it’s MY version.

The last time I made this dish was while I was on holiday and was busy playing with my then recently acquired Nokia D200. The result was a somewhat burnt spice mix (shhh), lots of not-so-great pictures (that caused the burning) but a delicious bisi bele bhath for a rather late lunch / early dinner. I have given you the recipe for the spice mix as well as the dish itself. Hope you will give it a go!

Bisi bele bhath with greek yoghurt on the side

Bisi bele bhath with greek yoghurt on the side – It tastes better than in looks, I promise

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Dosa (savoury crepe/pancake) and its friends

What is a dosa ? For starters, it is pronouced “Though-sah”. It is a South Indian crepe or savoury pancake and is the pride and joy of that part of the country. There is nothing like a fresh brown, crispy dosa served with a little blob of butter melting on top of it. The city where I come from (Bangalore) and the state it belongs to (Karnataka) take the humble dosa very very seriously. In fact, a good dosa joint is worth sitting in traffic for along time. Luckily for us, when we visited Bangalore, one of the best dosa places in town was across the road from where we stayed. At the cost of about 60pence a dosa, we had they to our heart’s content!

The traditional dosa is made mainly of lentils ( urid dal) and par-boiled (partially boiled and dried) rice with little embellishments such as fenugreek seeds and cumin seeds. One starts by soaking the lentils and rice overnight to soften them. Then, each ingredient is ground to a slightly gritty (grit size about 1mm) paste in a strong kitchen blender or a dosa grinder. The batter for dosa is then made by mixing the two pastes, adding a bit of salt and allowing the batter to ferment for 8-10 hrs but usually overnight. The natural yeast in the air are what makes dosa batter ferment. If you are in a cold country, then your best choice is to place the dosa batter inside your boiler cupboard to ferment.

The resulting batter is airy, slightly tangy smelling and an absolute treat once cooked. Mum says that the ratio of rice to lentils for dosa batter is 3:1 and perhaps a tablespoon of fenugreek seeds (to soak with the lentils). Cook dosas like you would cook any pancake with vegetable oil to easy the edges of the pan. While a lot of taste is in the dosa itself, the things that go with dosa add a whole new dimension to this traditional crepe. The most popular form of filling for a dosa is one made with boiled potatoes. In addition, dosas are served with chutneys (dips) made of coconuts, chillies, onions, garlic and roasted lentils.

Today’s blog is going to be about the friends of a dosa. The dosa I made was a cheat as I bought an instant-mix by a company called MTR. If you don’t have easy access to an Indian store to buy MTR dosa mix, you can make dosas out of semolina and standard flour. Use one cup of semolina and half a cup of standard flour, mix in one cup of yoghurt, salt and enough water to make a pancake-like batter. To jazz it up a bit, you can add finely chopped onions, green chillies and cumin seeds to the batter too.

Dosa and its friends

Dosa and its friends: Top left = Potato curry ; Top centre = Lentil, onion and chilli chutney; Top right = Coconut and coriander chutney; Bottom centre = MTR’s instant dosa

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Quick and dirty saffron pulao

I’ve been travelling for work and pleasure and hence my absence from the blog. I will post a couple of recipes to make up for my absence. The first of these was inspired by the Spanish saffron I got my hands on during one of my recent trips. Beautiful, long strands of saffron that impart a mild, yellow colour to rice and a wonderful and unique flavour too. For those of you who are unfamiliar with saffron, it is the most expensive spice in the world. Each saffron plant has upto 4 flowers and each flower has 3 strands of saffron and each strand has to be hand-picked from a flower. So when you go to the supermarket and see that 1gram of saffron costs 7 GBP, try not to balk.

Growing up, I almost never saw saffron until the time dad went to the Middle east for work and came back with some saffron. Mum used it mostly in desserts but it is also commonly used in flavouring and colouring savoury rice dishes. This pulao is no Spanish paella (pronounced pa-aye-ya) but there is taste in its simplicity. Also, it goes very well with a lot of curries – be they mild or potent. I’m afraid I don’t have a picture of the final product as we were really hungry and ate it pretty quickly. Hope you try this easy recipe and like it!

Strands of saffron on a bey leaf

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Colourful vegetarian risotto

The Italian risotto is something I didn’t make in my kitchen for a while after I started cooking. I’d usually pay money to eat it as it was one of those things that I didn’t cook in my kitchen. Once, in the small town of Palmerston North, New Zealand, in a “fancy” restaurant, I had a roast vegetable risotto. The rice was half-raw (no, not al dente) and I got put off the taste for a while. A little later, a friend made a spinach-pesto risotto that was so rich, I was ill the next day. Once again, I was put off risotto for a while. A few months later, another friend of mine made a very nice roast vegetable risotto with pesto and I thought I’d put it back on my list of things I like to eat. Clearly, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with this dish.

In the first year of my PhD, I met a postdoctoral fellow whose husband was a chef. One day, she gave me his recipe for a mushroom risotto (he is also a mushroom grower by hobby) while chatting over lunch. I soon tried it and ever since I tried it, I’ve been in love with it. I make modifications in terms of what veges I add but the basic recipe is always the same. I have also taught my partner to make it who has extraordinary patience for stirring the risotto after each addition of stock. As a result, his risottos are always better than mine. The recipe here is for a red and yellow capsicum, zucchini and brown mushroom risotto. To spice it I use pepper, lemon rind and lemon juice. We loved it and hope you do too.

Multi-coloured risotto ready to eat

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Gemista (Capsicum/Peppers stuffed with rice)

There is a very famous Greek tavern in Melbourne’s Cebtral Business District called ‘Stalactities’. It is a Melbourne icon and a friend to all those who are still out and about at wee hours of the morning as it is open 24-7. It was here that I first tasted a gemista and my first reaction to it was ‘too minty’ and ‘too much rice’. Having grown up in a South-Indian household eating rice 3 or 4 times a day, I generally try and avoid eating it as much as I can and so this dish was a big thumbs-down.

However, in the last couple of years, I’ve started making  my version of the gemista which is not so minty and has a few more flavours than just rice. I also cut the capsicums/peppers in half which in no means is traditional but ah well. The parmesan on top too isn’t very authentic but I like it and my partner hasn’t complained so far so I’ll assume he does too. I hope you like it too.

Peppers stuffed with rice and topped with cheese

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Venn Pongal ( A spicy rice and lentil porridge)

At the same time as I was in Rome, my extended family in India were celebrating a harvest festival called ‘Pongal’ (pronounced ‘pon’ as in pontiff and ‘gal’ as in seagull) in the state of Tamil Nadu and ‘Sankranti’ (pronounced ‘sun’ + ‘kra as in kraal+’ n’ + ‘thi’ as in ‘thick’)  in the state of Karnataka. This festival marks the end of the winter and the beginning of the new harvest season in these parts of the country.

Wikipedia explains quite nicely how the festival is celebrated in the state of Karnataka http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makar_Sankranti#Karnataka and in the state of Tamil Nadu http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makar_Sankranti#Tamil_Nadu. Since both my parents grew up in Tamil Nadu but my sister and I were brought up in Karnataka, we grew up celebrating both versions of this harvest festival. The Tamil version involves the preparation of this rice and lentil porridge called ‘Pongal’  where the festival gets its name from.  It is a dish that I fondly remember from my childhood days and is a recipe I learnt from mum who learnt from her mum. It comes in a sweet version – Sakkara pongal (meaning sugary pongal) and Venn pongal (meaning savoury pongal). I will share recipes for both dishes with you in separate pages to make reading easier and the next time I make them at home, I’ll put up a picture or two.

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