A Taste of South India – Bisi Bele Bhaath
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This week on OneLifeToEat, I am shifting from my norm of writing about Indian recipes I’ve simplified. This week, good friend Vibha Karnik walks you through a South Indian wedding, its traditions and most importantly, its food. Vibha also shares her recipe for a sumptuous wedding favorite – Bisi Bele Bhaat: Lentils and Rice in a tamarind curry.
The West, I think, first saw an Indian Wedding in Mira Nair’s film, Monsoon Wedding. It was an introduction to our large families, our clothes, our colorful dance, our lavish wedding décor, our rich food and a whole lot of oomph. Soon, one Bollywood (India’s film industry) movie after another portrayed Indian weddings with the brides wearing ornate lehengas (a wedding dress worn by the bride), grooms donning grand sherwanis (a wedding outfit worn by the groom) and lots of dancing, which the Indian Diaspora lapped up.
I am an Indian. I stay in India; in the Southern state of Karnataka to be exact. I belong to the sub-community, collectively referred to as Kannadiga. As is always with films, our weddings are nothing like the ones portrayed in Bollywood! We have the large families, but there are no lehangas or sherwanis. We wear Kancheepuram sarees and most of the time the groom wears a white dhothi (traditional Indian men’s garment) with no shirt on top!
Weddings in India are a big affair. And every state and cultural region in India has its own customs, rituals and superstitions. A Hindu wedding in Karnataka is filled with rituals that involve the bride, groom and their parents toiling away long hours in front of the holy fire, performing rites and ceremonies. In fact, weddings in other Southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are also very similar. It is in Kerala, another South-Indian state, where people get away with a 30-minute wedding; the shortest wedding in India for sure!
The wedding goes on for 3 days!
The very first ceremony involves building the Chapra, which literally means ‘roof’. A Chapra is a decorative shelter made in front of your home with leaves from a coconut tree, interwoven together, and holds a symbolical place in Indian weddings. In the old days, when the newspaper, television and radio did not exist, news was conveyed to people in person, by relatives or friends. The Chapra is a symbol of a wedding, developed in those times to let a news giver know not to convey bad news to a family that is celebrating a wedding. The Chapra is usually put up on an auspicious day before the wedding. With most people living in apartments now, there is hardly any space to erect a Chapra!
After several intricate ceremonies following the Chapra ceremony, on the day of the wedding, the bride performs a Gowri Pooja (A prayer dedicated to Goddess Parvati) and seeks her blessings. The groom in the meantime ‘pretends’ to go on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Kashi, more commonly known as Varanasi. This is the funny part! The groom actually pretends to leave for Kashi to study as he is unable to find a suitable bride. Then the bride’s brother stops the groom and shows him his sister. On seeing her, the groom cancels his journey and agrees to marry her! I promise I did not make this up!
After all the pre-wedding rituals, the actual wedding ceremony begins, and can last from two to six hours depending on how religious your family is. Towards the end of this long wedding, the couple takes the seven steps together called the Saptapadi; every step symbolizing a promise. This last step seals bride and groom in holy matrimony.
These are some of the important aspects of a Hindu Kannadiga wedding. Today however, South-Indian weddings have borrowed other, non-traditional ceremonies from Bollywood, that make weddings more fun and add a touch of glamor.
But all has not changed.
Something about a Kannadiga wedding that still remains untouched by influences is the food. And more importantly how it is served. The meal is always vegetarian and served on a banana leaf. What is important to note is that there are multiple courses, and a particular sequence in which the food is served and a specific place for everything dish on the leaf.
The first dish to be served is the payasa, a milk-based sweet dish. It is always served on the lower right hand corner. One must eat this first as it is symbolic of the happy event. Then follows multiple courses of sumptuous, delicious food. The payasa is followed by salt, pickle, a salad dish called kosambari, and playa which could be vegetables like cabbage, beans or beet root cooked with mustard seeds and coconut which are all served on the leaf. A flavored rice dish such as lemon rice, tamarind rice or mint rice comes next. This is served on the left hand side of the leaf.
The meal ends with the main course (no, not dessert), which consists of rice eaten with a lentil preparation. Bisi Bele Bhaath, which literally translates to Hot Pulse Rice, is a common lentil dish served as the main course. It is a great meal by itself and healthy too!
Here’s my recipe for Bisi Bele Bhaat – Lentils and Rice in a tamarind curry
- 1 cup par-boiled rice
- 1/2 cup toovar daal or Pigeon Pea gram, cooked well
- 5-6 Tamarind pods soaked in warm water for ½ hour or so. Drain and keep the water aside
- 2 cups of peas, beans and carrots, cut into ½ inch pieces, cooked till almost done
- Salt to taste
Heat 1 tsp oil in a pan. When the oil is heated add 2 table spoon coriander seeds, 8-10 ( or according to taste) dried red chilies 2 tsp urad daal (white lentils), 1/4 inch cinnamon stick, 6-8 pepper corns, 1/2 tsp white poppy seeds and 1 tsp cumin seeds. Fry this together till your kitchen in fragrant.
Remove from heat and add 2-3table spoons of grated coconut to this mixture. Do not add desiccated coconut. Grind this coarsely in a blender and spice grinder.
In a big pan, heat 3 tbsp of oil or ghee in big pan. Add mustard seeds and curry leaves.
Add the cooked pigeon pea gram, the ground spice mix, tamarind water, salt to taste and the par-boiled rice. Add enough water to cover the mixture. Cook on medium heat stirring frequently so that it does not get burnt. You may add more water if necessary. When the rice is well done, take the pan off the heat.
In a separate pan, heat 1 tsp of ghee. Heat and add cashew nuts slit lengthwise. Garnish the dish with these fried cashew nuts.
Tip: Enjoy the dish about 4 hours after you finish preparing it. The taste is much better.
Vibha is a marketing communications professional working for HID Global (www.hidglobal.com) and she stays in Bengaluru, India. She is a dreamer, a planner, an optimist and a complete idealist. Vibha also blogs at: http://roller-coastering.blogspot.com