Every winter, the women of my family would huddle together shelling hyacinth beans, singing songs and sharing stories
An abiding memory that lifts off my heart like a ribbon of mist on a wintry Bengaluru morning involves avarekai or hyacinth beans and some of my favourite women. Avarekai is a curious thing: it is starchy and nutritious, like most other beans, but with a distinct, luxurious aroma, known as sogadu in Kannada.
Growing up in Bengaluru, we waited eagerly for winter because it meant, among other things, going to the market to buy freshly harvested avarekai. For weeks, the entire house would smell like mulch and herbs. And a staple dish we ate a lot in the cold months was avarekai tovve, a delicious curry slow cooked on low heat with diced pumpkin and doused in a spicy, coconutty gravy, topped off with a squirt of lemon juice.
To this day, it’s one of my favourite dishes to cook and eat. It brings to me the image of the women in my family — my mother and grandmother, my sister and our house help, all huddled up on bamboo mats, shelling mounds of beans while singing folk songs personifying the crops, drinking endless cups of coffee, and discussing everything from neighbourhood news to the state of the Indian economy.
Laughs and secrets
I share these memories with my sister, Usha, who has to make do with frozen packs of avarekai from the Indian store in New Zealand. “I looked forward to the avarekai season and ajji’s stories of her Malenadu childhood. I’d squirm and scoot every time someone spotted a green worm,” she recalls with a laugh.
The women of the family, who would be quiet and solemn through the year, turned into real people as they sat through the simple winter ritual. As All India Radio rang out the olaga, the Carnatic saxophone tune, in the mornings, they would work with single-minded devotion on a pile of beans, separating the tender ones, the hardy ones, and chucking out the wormy ones. They shared laughs and secrets, claiming the air around them, getting closer to each other, redefining their self-worth. It was therapeutic for me to watch them in action.
To realise that there was more to them than just kitchen and household chores was a revelation. As I was initiated into their club, I came to understand them and my roots better.
One of my favourite apocryphal stories told by ajji during an avarekai session involves the naming of my city: when the 13th century Hoysala king Veera Ballala II had lost his way in a forest, an old woman fed him boiled beans. Touched by her gesture, the king named that part of the forest Benda Kaalu Ooru or the Town of Boiled Beans.
Spiced with songs
The avarekai routine didn’t end there. It went from the living room to the backyard, where we would wash and air the beans on yards of soft, white cotton cloth. The plump ones would be skinned and cleaned and typically used in uppittu, or deep-fried in hot oil to make a savoury trail-mix with slices of roasted coconut and nuts, a frequent coffee-time snack.
The skins would be sent off in a steel dabba to the local dairy farm to feed the cows. The supple beans would be put away in the refrigerator, to be used in rottis and rasams. And through this entire lifecycle of the avarekai, from market to fridge, the women stuck together and found hope and strength in the knowledge that no one could play their roles better than them.
When I returned to India six years ago, my family had moved away to another continent and I was left with only the memories of this culinary legacy. I wanted to pass it on to my daughter, but I was disappointed to note that avarekai was available in processed form throughout the year now. The thrill of anticipating the arrival of seasonal produce in the market was lost.
But then I discovered the Avarekai Mela, an annual Bengaluru fair showcasing unique dishes made from avarekai, from good old curries to new-fangled sweets. It wasn’t exactly a true taste of childhood, because we had never eaten sweets prepared from avarekai, but it felt good to relive the magic of olden days.
This January, I found myself in the local market, looking for my favourite winter bean. I brought home a few kilos to shell and sort with my daughter. Cooking the most cherished avarekai dish of my childhood, I spiced it up with the notes of an old folk song I had learnt from my mother and grandmother. I recounted stories of avarekai season from my childhood, and told my daughter how the women in her family turned a simple kitchen act into something poetic and meaningful.
2 cups of fresh avarekai
1 cup diced pumpkin
1/2 cup freshly grated coconut
A handful of coriander leaves, roughly chopped
2 green chillies, de-seeded and chopped
¼ inch fresh ginger
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon brown sugar
½ cup water
Juice of 1 lemon
For the seasoning
2 teaspoons of groundnut oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 or 2 stalks of curry leaves
1-2 dry red chillies, broken into halves
A pinch of hing
Pressure cook the beans for about 8 minutes on a low flame or cook in a pot until tender.
Cook the diced pumpkin separately until soft but firm and mix with the beans.
Grind the rest of the ingredients, except the lemon juice, to a smooth paste, and add to the cooked beans and pumpkin.
Add salt, sugar, and water and let it all come together, on a low flame, for about 10 minutes, until the raw smell of the coconut and chilli paste evaporates.
In a kadhai, heat oil and splutter mustard seeds. Add cumin, curry leaves, chillies, hing, and turn off the heat.
Pour the seasoning on the tovve and top with lemon juice.
Stir gently and serve with rice.
The writer is a true blue Bangalorean, lover of all things related to food and culture.