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 – It tastes better than in looks, I promise
The word “tempering” brings to most minds the technique used for the toughening of steel or glass. For the food oriented mind, perhaps the tempering of chocolate or its slow heating and cooling comes to mind. To a mind that spent half its life in South India however, the word “tempering” means yummy food is on its way to one’s belly.
The Kannada word for “tempering” is “vogranne” and the Hindi word is “vagaar”. The similarity I can draw to other well known forms of tempering is that it requires heat. This technique of tempering comes to most South Indian cooks as second nature as does the stocking of tempering ingredients. Having grown up seeing my mum and grandma cook, and having cooked for many years myself, I don’t even have to think of what to add for tempering – it just comes naturally.
It was only recently that I realised that perhaps, it isn’t natural or intuitive to those who are did not grow up like I did. One of the main triggers was my partner going “You keep saying it’s simple but I’ve just counted 8 ingredients that you’ve rattled of. Do you really think it is that simple for me ?” And then, we were at a pub with a bunch of friends and I was having a conversation about Indian food and while describing the process of tempering, I realised how right my partner was. Especially as I realised that the person I was talking to had an expression on his face that read “Oh my God” – poor bugger!
Thus, I make this attempt to “de-construct” this mysterious tempering business. This first attempt is more applicable to South Indian food and I hope to follow it up in the future with a North Indian tempering blog at some point. I have provided the Kannada (my native language) and Hindi names for each ingredient in case your local shop imports them. In addition, there is a long list of pronunciations at the end of this blog and the part II blog to help you when you go shopping for the ingredients below. Finally, I’ve broken this blog into two parts mainly to make it less of a drag to read. Hope you find it informative !