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"Success isn't everything but it makes a man stand straight." - Lillian Hellman, U.S. playwright
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Monday November 24, 2014
My Turn:
The Bangalore Beans
Vol: 1 Num: 2    Spring 2006
A Hoysala king gets lost in Southern India while hunting game, a villager offers him a meal of boiled beans and Bangalore gets its name. Pretty cool for the unofficial outsourcing capital of the world!

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 name.

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 expansion.

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 upma.

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.

---
Avdhani is a freelance writer based in Bangalore, India, who returned to his first love, writing, after working as a marketing professional.

 

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