Bise bela bhath means dal and rice in Kannada. To me, the words always sound like a happy, anytime, tantalize-your-tastebuds type of one-pot comfort. It’s because this dish engages all my tastebuds with its full bodied spicy, sweet and sour flavor. The dish uses tamarind extract for the sourness and employs dried red chillies boldly for heat. There is a hint of sweet from root vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes and pumpkin, along with a touch of bitterness from the spices used, perhaps the fenugreek seeds. When I stand next to the stove while finishing the bise bela bhath, the aromas of ghee coupled with coconut, mustard seeds, cinnamon stick and hints of roasted chana dal – all rise up to assail my nostrils. It’s all I can do to stop myself from dipping a finger into the steaming pot and licking off the creamy rice dal mixture. My hands remain aromatic through the day from all the spices that I handle to make this dish. It’s a welcome, appetite whetting smell.
This is my dear friend Shruthi’s recipe, and I have lots of happy memories entwined with this bhath, particularly of eating it at her home with crunchy potato chips crushed on top. Shruthi’s recipe is easy, and I make bise bela bhath every other week now. I’ve modified her original recipe of 1 cup dal : 1 cup rice : 1 cup mixed vegetables to 1/2 cup dal: 1/2 cup rice: 2 cups of mixed vegetables. Since I add more vegetables, my rice-dal mixture is more moist and I therefore keep my tamarind extract water more concentrated. So while Shruthi’s recipe calls for 3 cups of tamarind water, I’ve cut down the water in my tamarind extract to yield 1 – 1/2 cups of spiced water. I love a slightly more aromatic and spicy bhath, so I’ve used the same amount of spice (but fewer red chillis!) as her original recipe. I love using root vegetables and winter squash in my bise bela bhath, but you can use any vegetables except for eggplant and okra, which turn mushy when pressure cooked. Tomatoes and onions are optional in Shruthi’s recipe, but I love adding them, given my Bengali khichri loving roots.
I like serving this rice with a side of simple Indian-style sauteed cauliflower, but it’s perfectly tasty on its own.
Shruthi’s Bise Bela Bhath:
For pressure cooker:
1/2 cup rice, soaked for a half hour
1/2 cup toor dal, soaked for a half hour
1 cup of vegetables, cubed (e.g. beans, carrots, potato, pumpkin, peas)
1/2 cup, onions, diced
1/2 cup tomato, diced
a pinch of turmeric
1 tsp of oil (sesame or canola)
To be toasted in ghee:
1 tbsp chana dal
2-3 dried whole red chilis, more or less depending on desired spice level
2 tsp dry whole coriander seeds
1 tsp fenugreek seeds or poppy seeds
a small piece of cinnamon stick
a large pinch of asafoetida
2 tbsps of grated coconut, fresh or frozen
1/8 cup or lime sized ball of fresh or dried tamarind fruit paste
1 tbsp of ghee
1 tsp mustard seeds
a pinch of garam masala
1. Heat the oil in a pressure cooker, and briefly sauté the rice, toor dal and all the vegetables. Add a pinch of turmeric and 2 cups of water. Close the lid and bring to 3 whistles until the contents are cooked.
2. Soak the tamarind for a few minutes in a cup of hot water and strain vigorously to gather all the tamarind extract. In a small pot, boil the strained tamarind extract plus salt for about 10 minutes until the raw sharp taste of tamarind goes away. About 1 cup of boiled mix is needed so add another half cup or one cup of water to the tamarind water before setting it to boil.
3. Meanwhile, in a small pan with a spot of ghee, toast all the dry spices as noted in the ingredient list.
4. Add 2-3 tablespoons of grated coconut to above fried mixture and grind to make coarse paste.
5. Add the above spice mixture to boiling tamarind water, boil some more.
6. Add boiled tamarind water and paste to cooked rice, dal and vegetables.
7. Final seasoning: heat 1 tbsp of ghee, sputter mustard seeds and a pinch of garam masala. Add to the rice-lentil mixture and stir.