The Dish: Bisi Bele Bath
October 26, 2007
Comfort food gets a characteristically spicy Indian touch in Bangalore in the form of bisi bele bath, a hearty dish of moist rice and lentils that features a tamarind tang and a slow chili afterburn. Devotees praise it as an all-in-one meal, nutritious but rather heavy thanks to generous helpings of ghee (clarified butter). A typical portion is also studded with carrots, beans, green peas and onions. With more than 30 ingredients, this slow-cooked, aromatic dish is nonetheless routinely described as easy to make. "I started cooking it when I was 8 years old. At that age, it was tough," says Vijayalakshmi Reddy, now a 61-year-old television chef whose Bangalore cooking classes attract the wives of cricketers, actors and politicians. They find bisi bele bath a breeze, Ms. Reddy says.
No other dish from India's southern state of Karnataka can rival the fame of bisi bele bath. Much of the credit goes to the Bangalore-based MTR Foods Ltd. (recently acquired by Orkla ASA of Norway), which began producing both a ready-to-microwave version and a spice mix six years ago; the company now sells 60 tons of each a year. But mass-market uniformity hasn't wiped out generations of homemade creative tweaking. "I can't keep track of what is authentic. Each home claims the more 'original' version," says Praveen Anand, executive chef of Dakshin restaurant in Chennai, in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu.
Surprisingly, vegetable-heavy bisi bele bath began life vegetable-free. The name literally means "hot rice cooked in sauce" in the local language, Kannada. The late K.T. Achaya, author of "A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food," maintained in the book that the dish is a modern version of a 10th-century preparation called kattogara that combined rice with ghee, salt and garlic. But that theory doesn't convince Venkatesh Bhat, chef at Bangalore's South Indies restaurant, who spent three years in the mid-1990s researching South Indian specialties. Mr. Bhat and others argue that the dish was dreamed up 300 years ago in Mysore Palace, 140 kilometers southwest of Bangalore. It was a lunch item, they say, enlivened with cashew nuts, tamarind, dried coconut, mustard seeds, cloves, cinnamon and turmeric. No vegetables were necessary because the royals who lived in the palace had their pick of many vegetable-based side dishes.
At some stage, though, bisi bele bath escaped the palace walls and found its way to the famed vegetarian eateries of Udupi in western Karnataka. From there, a vegetable-laden version spread throughout the state and bisi bele bath turned into a hearty farmer's meal, consumed mid-morning after a stint in the fields.
Today, bisi bele bath appears on the table for late breakfast, lunch and even dinner, although late-night consumption of such a rich dish carries the risk of indigestion. At Bangalore's inexpensive vegetarian joints, customers eat it at top speed, often standing up.
Families trot out their special version of bisi bele bath for visiting relatives until they simply can't eat any more. It's also a popular picnic food.
Inevitably with such a popular dish, no one can quite agree on the correct recipe. Some eateries sprinkle tiny balls of fried chickpea flour, known as boondi, on the dish in order to satisfy the Indian penchant for something crunchy. Others deliver the crunch with a side dish of raita, which offers nuggets of raw onion swimming in yogurt, although bisi bele bath is most commonly eaten on its own. The problem, say some, is that these additions and condiments, along with an overdose of green peas, beans and carrots, can overpower the more delicate spices (in addition to mustard seeds, cloves, cinnamon and turmeric, the dish typically includes curry leaves, coriander leaves and fenugreek seeds). "The flavor of the dish is killed if you add boondi," grumbles Mr. Bhat of South Indies restaurant, who finds green peas equally objectionable. His version emphasizes the soft texture of the dish, and the delayed heat produced by Mangalore chilies. The chef says he only deviates slightly from the palace recipe by adding a few slivers of carrots and beans to make it "a tad nutritious."
With high ceilings, fresh flowers, and Indian classical music gently rippling in the background, this classy venue caters to corporate diners and their foreign guests. Mr. Bhat's palace version of bisi bele bath is available a la carte and sometimes included in the plentiful lunch buffet.
840/A, 100 Foot Rd., Indiranagar. 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. 91-80-4163-6363. Bisi bele bath $2.30, lunch buffet $9.
Plunge into Bangalore's lively old neighborhood of Malleshwaram, where the local Brahmins (the priestly caste) take their vegetarian food very seriously. Fight your way to the cash register, pay in advance and bring the chit to the South Indian counter: You'll be rewarded with a steel plate filled to the brim, and expected to leave within 20 minutes. This version boasts lots of vegetables, and boondi on the side, but no extra ghee, in deference to the "Health is Wealth" sign out front.
3rd Cross, Sampige Road, Malleshwaram. 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. 91-80-4127-9754. 25 cents.
Mavalli Tiffin Rooms
Going strong since 1924, this Bangalore institution sells about 150 plates of bisi bele bath a day. Customers must cool their heels in the Waiting Hall after giving their names to a barefoot man with a clipboard. Never mind the red plastic chairs, dingy walls and lackadaisical service: Revel in the family hubbub and marvel at the quantities of food ingested here.
14 Lalbagh Rd. 12:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., but often sold out by 5 p.m. 91-80-2222-0022. 55 cents.
--Margot Cohen is a Bangalore-based writer.
Write to Margot Cohen at margot.cohen[at]awsj.com