This recipe for bisi bele avalakki is a variation on the popular kannadiga dish bisi bele bhath—a highly seasoned porridge made out of rice cooked with lentils. Bisi bele bhath literally translates as “hot lentil rice dish.” This recipe was given to me by the aunt of a childhood friend. To me there are few dishes that are more typically Kannadiga than bisi bele bhath. It’s warm and comforting with a frisson of heat and acidity and a touch of earthy jaggery sweetness.
The cooked cucumber added to this dish might seem odd to some Western cooks but I urge you to leave it in. The grated vegetable is a common ingredient in many dishes cooked by Kannadiga Brahmins who often avoid eating onions; the belief is that the cooked cucumber assumes the binding, umami-giving role of onions in dishes like this. I can’t say with certainty that I find this to be exactly true, but the effect is subtly wonderful and it’s a trick I now use in a variety of dishes.
The dish also calls for two prepared spice blends—bisi bele bhath powder and sambhar powder. You can find recipes for both online. (I particularly like the versions at Veg Recipes of India, here and here.)If you feel industrious enough for it, I recommend making them, but if this seems too time-consuming to you, feel free to buy both—which you can find in Indian stores as bisi bele bhath powder and sambhar powder. Avalakki, which you can also easily find in Indian stores is often sold as poha. Make sure to buy the thicker grade, often sold as thick poha or “gatti” avalakki.
The ogaranne, or “seasoning” added to the dish gives it a certain spice-forward richness, and is an essential step. It’s simple but remarkably effective. Spices are quickly sizzled in hot oil before adding them (and the oil) to the bisi bele avalakki.
NOTE: Though it’s wildly untraditional, I love serving bisi bele avalakki with a soft- boiled egg that’s been deep fried, and a scattering of chiwda. Don’t feel like you need to replicate this lunacy in your own version. Most people (rightly) enjoy a bowl of bisi bele avalakki with no more than a drizzle of hot ghee and perhaps some cool raita or pachadi on the side.
Bisi bele Avalakki
1 cup whole moong dhal, soaked for 3–4 hours
1 potato, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
1 carrot, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
Green string beans, strung and cut into ½-inch pieces
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeds removed, and grated
½ tsp ground turmeric
½ cup fresh shelled peas
½ cup tamarind purée
1 heaped tablespoon jaggery (or to taste)
1 plum tomato, cored and cut into large cubes
2 tbsp sambhar powder (or to taste)
3 tbsp bisi bele bhath powder (or to taste)
1 cup gatti avalakki
3 tbsp ghee
1 tsp black mustard seeds
Leaves from one sprig of curry patha
Chile powder to taste
Drain the lentils and transfer them to a large, heavy-bottomed pan.
Add water to cover by half an inch and cook until the lentils are completely soft. Add salt to taste.
Add the potato, carrot, beans, cucumber, turmeric, and peas to the lentils and cook till all the vegetables are tender, adding more water if it looks like the lentils are threatening to stick to the bottom of the pan.
Add the tamarind, jaggery, tomato, and the sambhar and bisi bele bhath powders. The strength and flavor of the spice powders will vary depending on the brand that you use, so start light and add more if you like. Cook for another five minutes until the tomato has broken down.
In a small frying pan, heat three tablespoons of ghee till it begins to shimmer. Add the black mustard, curry leaves, and chile powder and let them briefly sputter before pouring them, and the ghee, over the lentils. Stir well to combine.
Add the 1 cup of avalakki to the seasoned dhal mixture and cook briefly till grains are plump but still slightly toothsome—about 4 to 5 minutes. Taste for salt and seasoning and adjust as needed.
Enjoy while piping hot, either the traditional way, with a drizzle of ghee and some yoghurt pachadi, or, if you’re inclined the way I am, topped with a soft-boiled egg that’s been deep-fried, and a scattering of store-bought chiwda.