An Annual Fair in Karnataka Transforms a Humble Bean Into Dozens of Delicious Snacks

The 18-day Avarekai Mela is the only Indian fair of its kind to celebrate the hyacinth bean, which is turned into more than 70 delicacies that are sold in stalls in Bengaluru, Karnataka.

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Jan 30 2016, 5:00pm

At the entrance of Thindi Beedi, Bengaluru's famous food street, an old man sits with two mounds of shelled hyacinth beans, selling them for 120 rupees (approximately US $2) per kilogram to passersby. He seems to be enjoying the balmy winter afternoon and the money he is making selling the humble bean.

From a heap of spring green beans, his wife is constantly picking out and separating the ones that are turning yellow.

"Once shelled, soaked and skinned, these beans don't last more than a day," the bean-seller, who calls himself Ramchandran, enlightens me.

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Ramchandran belongs to one of the families of the 1,000 farmers that are invited to participate in the 18-day Avarekai Mela (hyacinth bean fair), the only Indian fair of its kind to celebrate the bean, held every January on Thindi Beedi (meaning "food street" in Kannada, the local language). A handful of them sell the shelled beans directly to buyers; but most supply fresh produce twice a day to Sri Vasavi Condiments, the snack store that organizes the Mela.

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Almost 200 deft hands, hired specially for the fair, create more than 70 delicacies using the aromatic bean to be sold in stalls across the street.

Avarebele, as the shelled hyacinth bean is called in Kannada, originated in India, and is mostly grown in and around the state of Karnataka. The extensive consumption of avarebele is exclusive to this part of India—as opposed to avarekai, the whole bean, which is relished throughout the country. Incidentally, according to old lore, Karnataka's capital of Bengaluru derived its name from the boiled bean.

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I step into the illustrious Sri Vasavi Condiments, located at the beginning of the street, to find a range of savory and sweet snacks neatly stacked in glass counters. Visitors like to get a taste of every snack before they make a purchase, and the salespeople eagerly oblige, handing over small portions in paper plates. Swathi Karmakar, a management graduate who has run the store for the past two years, is busy selling coupons for the dishes at the cash counter.

"My mom started the Mela because she wanted to thank the farmers who regularly supply the bean to us," she tells me when the crowd clears up for a bit. Karmakar's mother—Geetha Shivakumar, the brain behind the fair—started out 23 years ago as a home chef selling dry avarebele snacks during the winter. As her popularity shot up, she shifted her business to this store.

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Shivakumar's team of cooks prepares dry snacks throughout the year. Over a period of time, several stores in Bengaluru have replicated her recipes, but Sri Vasavi Condiments retains the distinction of being the pioneer. The idea of organizing the annual food fair came to Shivakumar 16 years back; what started as a weeklong program has now turned into an 18-day lavish affair, with endless options for a food-lover, coming straight from Shivakumar's creative kitchen. Each day, over 2,000 kilograms of beans are consumed for the preparation of delicacies at the fair, lending a shade of green to every food item within sight and giving the bean farmers a major economic boost.

I move out of the store with Karmakar to sample the food, and am fascinated by the deftness with which a cook is turning over the paddus on a frying plate. The shallow-fried lentil and rice globule is a typical South Indian savory item, prepared with the same batter as a dosa, a popular, crunchy pancake. The avarebele finds its way into the paddu batter along with chopped onion, coriander, and green chilies. I bite into a freshly made one and love the way its crusty layer gives way to a soft, spicy center.

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My sweet tooth draws me toward a soft and juicy jamoon, a sweet made by frying balls of cottage cheese dough and then dunking them in sugar syrup. Who could think of the humble bean foraying into desserts? But the Avarekai Mela is full of surprises. The avarebele is deep-fried and mixed with the jamoon dough in the recipe. It replaces the original almond and cashews quite well, with its mild, nutty flavor.

Suraj Kumar, one of the cooks, tells me that this is his third year at the fair making jamoons. "It's hard work since I have to be here at least 14 hours every day, but an attractive wage makes it a worthy deal," he says. The scrumptious food provided free of cost to the workers is also a big draw for him.

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It's getting dark and the crowd is growing.

"The fair gets at least 3,000 visitors every day," reveals Karmakar. Most loyalists make multiple visits in a frenzied attempt to consume the range of items available.

"I make it a point to taste my favorite snacks every year—and there are many—so I make at least three trips to the fair," says S. Govindraju, a software engineer. He's relishing a big green avarebele samosa, a fried patty with a savory filling of potato, onion, and beans. "No, the crowd doesn't deter me; I can jostle once a year for this sumptuous food," he adds.

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The avarebele akki rotipan-fried flatbread made with rice flour mixed with a generous amount of beans—is a customer favorite and is flying off the shelves. People eat some and carry home a few more for their family members who were unable to make it to the fair. "I love the way the beans lend their mild flavor to the roti. Their delicate crunch ensures a satisfying eating experience," says Anushka Raman, a student, while chowing down a plate of akki roti.

It's time for Karmakar to alert her cooks about the rising numbers. She confesses that long hours at the fair tire her out, but she wouldn't give it up for anything in the world. "A large number of people come to thank us and give us their blessings for making lip-smacking, healthy cuisine available at affordable rates," she tells me.

"I like the blessings part," she says. "That's what gives me the motivation to continue."