My Amma is the best cook I know. She can chop vegetables at lightning speed and flip chapatis using her bare hands. She’s memorized dozens of recipes and can make whatever I ask for on a whim. You can taste her love for food, which she learned from her own mother, in every dish she makes, as every dish served by her is cooked to perfection. Cooking is something my mother never gets sick of, even on her busiest days. You’ll always find her scrolling through recipes on YouTube or scribbling down recipes in her pocket notebook that she keeps in the drawer next to our stove, writing half of the words in Telugu and the other half in English. There is one signature dish I can never get enough of, though: her bisi bele bath.
Bisi bele bath is a hot lentil rice dish which originates from the Indian state, Karnataka. “Bisi” means “steaming hot” in Kannada, the native language of Karnataka, while “bele” means “lentils” and “bath” means mixed rice. My parents raised my brothers and I as Telugu, since Amma identifies as Telugu, and my father is a Telugu man, but my mother is actually a Kannada-Telugu woman. Her mother was Kannada, while her father is Telugu, so my Amma grew up learning both languages and cultures. In theory, that would also make my brothers and I mixed as Kannada-Telugu, but we never really dove into that part of our familial history. There’s a large Telugu community in my hometown where we watch Telugu movies, listen to Telugu music, eat Telugu dishes and celebrate Telugu holidays. It felt like I wasn’t missing out on much by not connecting to my Kannada roots, which were subsequently my only connection to my Ammamma, my maternal grandmother, since we weren’t that close due to distance. She lived in India near my cousins, while my family and I lived here in the United States, so we would only see her when we visited India, which was once in a blue moon.
Unfortunately, this last August, Ammamma passed away. For months, I regretted not taking the time to learn about our history and cultural roots through her. When she passed, it felt like a huge part of my identity was lost with her.
It wasn’t until Amma made her bisi bele bath again when the realization hit me that food is indeed culture. Although it may not be the biggest means of commemoration, I always know my Kannada roots will remain a part of me through this dish.
The lentils, rice, mixed vegetables, spices, seasonings and aromatics Amma uses are already enough to make my mouth water. However, the absolute cherry on top is when Amma opens the lid of the slow cooker to add in a heaping spoon of ghee (clarified butter) into the dish. The heat from all of the spices Amma adds, plus the tanginess from the tamarind, all tied together with the rich taste of ghee allows these flavors to combine and melt in your mouth as one. Although I only started eating this dish when I was in high school, it quickly became my comfort food. Something about the flavors and textures of the dish make me feel at home. I guess it’s because no matter how many other bisi bele baths I try, nothing ever compares to the one my Amma makes in her slow cooker. Her choice in the finest ingredients and care she puts into preparing bisi bele bath makes you really taste the love Amma has for food through this meal.
My Amma always makes this dish whenever we expect to have guests come over, since it’s easy and not too time consuming. It’s kind of an expectation at this point. My Amma and her friends like to get together every Friday and chant religious mantras. Every week, they cycle through who’s hosting. Amma and I host guests about once a month or once every other month, on average. On the nights we host, as they wrap up chanting their mantras, we all sit down together to eat, and there’s always enough bisi bele bath to go around. But my favorite part of these nights is waiting until after the guests leave to run down to the kitchen from my room and hog as many servings as I can. I find the biggest bowl, take it back to my room and eat while watching Community. No one else in my family feels this strongly for bisi bele bath, so that always leaves more for me.
Amma’s bisi bele bath has always been a hit amongst her friends. Hell, not only her friends, but my friends too. My childhood best friend has been eating Amma’s bisi bele bath for over 12 years now. Every time we’re both visiting home from college and planning to hang out, she asks “is aunty making bisi bele bath?” If the answer is “Yes,” her response is “This bisi bele bath is the only reason I’m coming to hang out with you.” If the answer is “No,” she’ll ask “Okay, but can you ask aunty to make it?” For her birthday, Amma made a giant tray of bisi bele bath. I delivered the tray to my friend’s house, and I still remember the giant smile on her face. My friend, to this day, has never been happier to see me.
Bisi bele bath never fails to make me happy as well. On days I see the slow cooker on the counter, my mouth already starts to water. My Amma always makes sure to have bisi bele bath prepared on the weekends I’m visiting home during the semester, once again showcasing her love through food. Although I’ve never tried making bisi bele bath (since I already know it’ll never be as good as my Amma’s), it’s so simple, you could make it even on your busiest days.
Here’s the recipe to my Amma’s irreplaceable comfort dish.
3 tablespoons of sambar powder
1 inch of a cinnamon stick
½ cup of roasted coconut powder
1 cup of water
½ cup of toor dal
1 cup of rice
½ a pack of frozen mixed vegetables
¼ cup of thick tamarind pulp
Ghee (clarified butter) to taste
- In a slow cooker, add your toor dal, rice and mixed vegetables.
- While in the cooker, grind your sambar powder, cloves, cinnamon, coconut powder and water into a paste.
- Once your dal, rice and vegetables are cooked, add your paste, salt to taste and tamarind pulp to the cooker.
- Mix well, add ghee, if desired, on top and serve!
If you’re like my Amma though, this dish isn’t complete without a side of Lay’s Wavy potato chips.
MiC Columnist Smarani Komanduri can be reached at email@example.com