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
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: Top left = Potato curry ; Top centre = Lentil, onion and chilli chutney; Top right = Coconut and coriander chutney; Bottom centre = MTR’s instant dosa
“Gojju” in Karnataka (where I grew up), refers to a thick, tangy sauce made with tamarind pulp, some basic spices and vegetables that will hold their shape when cooked in a sauce – like capsicum (peppers), eggplant (aubergine/brinjal), onions, okra (bhindi), lemon and so on. The tamarind pulp is the predominant ingredient and gives gojju the tang it is so well known for. Gojju, much like chutneys in the Western world, can be served as a condiment to rice dishes. Alternatively, gojju can be mixed with plain rice and consumed as a dish in itself.
Tomato gojju is a version of gojju which takes advantage of the abundance of tomatoes in the tomato rich season in South India. No tamarind is added to this version as tomato has its own subtler tang (yay Vitamin C) and a beautiful red colour that is much more appetising than the dark brown colour of a normal gojju.
Tomato gojju can be mixed with rice to make tomato bhath (mixed rice) or used as a dip to go with flatbread (rotis, chappatis), idlis (steamed rice cakes) and dosas (savoury rice and lentil pancakes). The recipe is easy and the end product is addictive. The hardest part is not to eat it all before the sauce thickens in the pot.
I’ve been having some fun with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to take the yellowness out of my pictures owing to the yellow lights in the house. I think it has worked well – hope you do too!
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 !