Dad bought the avarekai beans either from the market or from
one of the vegetable hawkers trundling their carts past our house. When my
sisters and I watched him empty a bag of the beans onto the verandah floor, he
said, "The scientific name is Dolichos lab lab. Go on, say it."
The lilt and strangeness of the new words were irresistible.
"Dolichos lab lab, Dolichos lab lab," we chanted with gusto to dad’s approving nods and started to shell the beans. Mother joined us, not in chanting but in
shelling the beans. Shy of English, she knew that we little devils, pompous with
education in a Bangalore convent, would pounce at a probable mispronunciation.
As I write this some forty years later, I am happy that dad
thought it important for us to know the botanical name for the bean that people
of Bangalore love so much. In the local language of Kannada, the shelled bean is
called avarekaalu and is believed to be responsible for giving Bangalore its
The story goes that many centuries ago, a Hoysala king lost
his way in a forest while hunting game. Tired and famished, he stumbled upon a
little village where a family offered him boiled avarekaalu beans and a place to
sleep. Grateful for the hospitality, the king named the village as Bendada
Kaalooru or the place of boiled beans and from then on contributed a lot to its
The story may be apocryphal but it’s hard not to be swayed by
the romantic undertones. The British, however, either didn’t think it as
romantic or their significantly colder tongues found the vernacular too much of
a twister. So, Bendada Kaalooru became Bangalore.
Back to dad. He would cajole mother to cook the bean almost
everyday during its season from December to March. She was adept at a variety of
dishes in which the beans could be used – upma, sambar, kootu, roti etc. Dad
especially loved the bean-filled upma and sambar. Mother would cook a huge
quantity of upma for breakfast and after we had our fill, she would stuff the
leftover into our lunch boxes for school. Those were stainless steel boxes and
by lunch hour the upma naturally congealed into a cold mass – but no matter; my
friends vied with one another to barter their snacks for my Dolichos lab lab
When used in sambar and served with rice, the beans can sate
the most ravenous appetite but dad’s appetite was a different matter. He would
stray into the kitchen just an hour or so after meals and with a saucer in one
hand ladle out whatever beans were left in the sambar. If mother caught him, he
would without a moment’s hesitation appease her with wholesome flattery: "How
can anyone resist your avarekaalu sambar?"
I preferred the kootu version of the beans but mother didn’t
prepare it as often; it demanded double the labor. Not only had the beans to be
shelled, but also they had to be soaked in water overnight and the skin removed
manually – by squeezing the bean between forefinger and thumb.
Imagine teasing out the skin of hundreds of beans! No doubt
my parents were good at the art – the fingertips had to slide swiftly with just
enough pressure in opposite directions for the bean to leave its skin and slip
into a vessel. When we children tried to do it the beans used to fly all over
the place, much of the time with skin intact. This used to annoy our dad and at
the first appearance of a frown on his brow, mother would shoo us away.
Mother used to prepare another snack, avera kaalu roti, for
the evening tiffin. With a little ghee and my favorite mint chutney couple of
rotis is enough to give you the feeling that all’s well with this world. I liked
the rotis prepared by my grandma more, though. She lived in a village about 70
miles from Bangalore and the few times I visited her, grandma would open a box
in which she’d store the cooked rotis. Although her rotis used to be few hours
old, they tasted much better than mother’s fresh-off-the-fire rotis. At that
young age, I wondered why. Perhaps dad would have said that food from another
house always tastes better.
Just one thing though that he forgot to tell us – like all
protein-rich legumes, too much of Dolichos lab lab causes flatulence. I suppose
he thought we were smart enough to discover that embarrassing fact on our own.