Comfort food: varan-bhat

sada varan bhat

For many of us dal-chaval constitutes the ultimate comfort food.  It is hard to come up with food that is simpler or more satiating.  One such version of dal-chaval is the Maharashrian sada varan-bhat.

Many Sundays during our courting days I would visit V at his home for lunch.  Varan-bhat was frequently on the menu – it was a Sunday favorite with the family.  Sunday used to be the day of the weekly veggie shopping from the Shahadra mandi in the days before Mother’s Dairy Fruit and Vegetable Shops and Big Apple marts appeared in every neighbourhood.  Often I would arrive to find V and his father still not back from the market.  With fresh vegetables yet to arrive for re-stocking the fridge, varan-bhat must have been not only the logical meal but also one that would allow time needed for the sorting of the soon-to-arrive green-groceries.  I remember my MIL following a regimen of washing and drip-drying all the vegetables before stocking them for the week.  Bundles of greens (spinach, coriander, and methi) were  untied, picked over to remove damp or rotting stems, and then packed into bags; other vegetables were trimmed and washed and spread on a cloth to dry off for a while.  If I got there before it was all done, I too would lend a helping hand.  That is when I learnt to do a quick job of picking methi (hold a fistful of the leafy-stems in one hand and pull  at the stem-ends with the other!), and that stems could be left in while using green coriander!

In addition to all this Sunday family activity there was the matter of getting Sunday lunch on the table with V at home for the day and I, the future DIL, visiting.  Varan-bhat kept it simple yet special.  Sada (meaning ‘plain’ or ‘simple’) varan is tuvar/arhar cooked with turmeric, asafoetida, salt and a pinch of sugar, till it is tender enough to be mashed smooth.  Served over hot steaming rice with ghee, it is the first course in a traditional Maharashtrian meal.  We love it so much that these days we make it the entire meal!  While the potato bhaji, is optional (but it pairs rather well), as is the mango pickle, this coconut chutney, the wedge of lime, and the spoonful of ghee are essential.  Take a small portion of rice; make a depression on it, pour over the varan, spoon on some ghee, squeeze over some lime.  Mix it all together with some chutney and savour.  When I want it to be extraordinary, then I fry some cabbage pakoras to accompany the meal.

Sada varan was also the very first dish I was asked to cook in the Maharashtrian kitchen as a new bride.  I was aghast that I had over-cooked it!  That was before I knew that, south of the Vindhyas, dals are cooked to be mashed smooth! 😀

sada varan bhat
Sada Varan
(A simple yellow dal)
Serves 4

1 1/2 C arhar (tuvar) dal
1/2 t turmeric
1/2 t compounded hing (the milder kind)
salt to taste
1/2 t sugar

Take the dal in a 1l capacity steel vessel and rinse in a couple of changes of water. Soak for at least 45min. Soaking ensures the dal will cook quicker and smoother. Add turmeric and hing to the soaked dal.  Top up the dal with more water if needed; there should be about 1/2″ of water covering the dal.  Fill a 3l (or larger) pressure cooker to about 1.5″ depth of water. Keep the trivet that came with your pressure cooker at the bottom of the cooker. Place the vessel with the dal in the cooker and cover with a steel plate; this will contain the foaming dal and prevent it from reaching the pressure vent. Place the pressure cooker on the smaller burner at full flame. Turn the flame to medium when full pressure had been attained or when you hear the first whistle. Cook on medium flame for 18 minutes (longer if you haven’t soaked the dal). Turn the heat off and wait till the pressure subsides. Remove the vessel from the cooker. Add salt and sugar and mash the contents till really smooth. Add water as needed to get a thick slurry consistency. Keep it hot till ready to serve with plain steamed rice.

Steamed Basmati rice
(pressure cooker method)

1 C basmati rice
(serves 2-4, depending on appetites!)

Pick over the rice. Put it in a 1l capacity steel bowl and rinse in a few changes of water till the water runs almost clear. Drain. Add 2 (2 1/4 if your rice is old) cups of water. Soak for 20 minutes. Take 1″ of water in the base of the pressure cooker. Put the container with the soaked rice in the pressure cooker. Close the pressure cooker lid remembering to remove the weight. Put the cooker with the rice on the small burner of your stove at full flame. Turn the flame down to medium-low once steam starts to come out of the pressure vent. Cook on medium-low for 10-12min. Turn the flame off and put the weight back on. Let rest for 10 minutes before fluffing the rice with a fork. You will have the fluffiest grains without a fuss! The rice will come to no harm should you forget to turn the heat off precisely after 10minutes – no more burnt rice!

Pressure cookers sm

I have two PrestigeTTK pressure cookers that I use on a regular (daily!) basis.  The 5.5l one is stainless steel, and the cutesie 3l one is anodised aluminium.  On occasion, when I need all burners going, I also use a much older UK-made 5l Prestige aluminium pressure cooker (that doesn’t whistle anymore!) that was gifted to my MIL many decades ago.  “I cooked the varan-bhat in my Indian pressure cooker and it didn’t blow up in my face!”  Jaya, this is my entry to your pressure-cooking event over at Desi Soccer Mom.

This post is also going to MLLA #56, the monthly event focused on cooking with legumes.  Started by Susan (The Well Seasoned Cook) many years ago, this month it is being hosted by Lisa.  Check out the archives with a host of recipes on cooking with legumes!


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A self professed urban ecologist!

21 thoughts on “Comfort food: varan-bhat”

  1. Nothing like the comfort of some “uppu paruppu” translated to salted dal and some pulikuzhambu. Makes me feel like I were back home every single time.

    Isn’t it amazing how food and associated memories can transport us back in time!

  2. This post took me home! 😉

    Your varan is even simpler than the one I make. I add cumin seeds and to maker life easier for me, I add ghee and lemon juice to the varan before bringing it to the table. My lemon juice is often frozen into ice cubes making it easier to do that.

    We all have different amounts of ghee and lime juice tolerances! In fact, A doesn’t add any lime juice, happy in the tartness of green mangoes in the chutney.
    I freeze lime juice in cubes only when there is an abundance from my mom’s trees and most of that ends up in tequila! 🙂

  3. Anita, this is an awesome way to cook toor dal- or any other dal, for that matter! The vessel-within-a-vessel idea never occurred to me- where did you learn this brilliant technique!? (and I say that after having had a toor-dal geyser hit the kitchen-ceiling when the foam plugged my vent!)

    I truly enjoy reading your posts about these days from the past- nostalgic feelings arise even from a reader like me, many miles away.

    It’s quite the norm, or at least, it is a known practice. Earlier, cookers would come with stack-able inserts! My MIL cooked with inserts everyday – it was rare for her to cook directly in the cooker. This way of cooking rice was also her method; basmati should never be pressure-cooked otherwise!
    Like V says, we now have a long past to look back upon. Many stories are beginning to start with, “back in our days…!”

    1. Only from every Indian woman who has ever used a pressure cooker 😀 Using inserts / vessels that stack is the way most Indian homecooks get rice, dal, and veggies (like potatoes, beets, etc) done at the same time. Then it’s just a question of phodni and masala. Cooking directly in the pressure cooker is not as common.

      Yes, cooking with inserts is more popular err… south of the Vindhyas! Because basmati cannot be cooked along with dal! 🙂 But if I have potatoes (as for the bhaji in the pics above) or beets to boil, then it works very well to place them on top of the pot lid.
      Kashmiris primarily cook directly in the cooker since the cooking method is a shallow fry followed by braising which has been adapted to pressure cooking. I swear that part of the special taste for naani’s dal comes from the fact that she cooks it directly in the cooker!

      1. Why is it this is the very-first time I am seeing this!?

        I have only one dal recipe here and that comes out best when cooked directly in the pressure cooker! I am happy to have given instructions to make your life easier from now on! Imagine the time you will be saving with a lot less cleanup!

      2. It is? Strange. I tell all my local friends to buy inserts. There was a giant discussion on Soma’s wall or maybe Jaya’s wall about why I prefer Prestige to Futura — the inserts are easy to put in and pull out as the mouth doesn’t have an inward lip. They even come with a lifter / holder thingee — similar to that of stackable tiffin / lunch boxes — that holds them together and make out easy to pull out.

        That is precisely why I like this design of Prestige! While I have stack-able inserts, it is rare for me to use them together. The cooking times for dal and vegetables vary too much!

    2. I know, I know… [sighs] It doesn’t seem so long ago, and yet the years keep rolling and places and people we once took for granted- gone, How does one really capture all of this to share with the younger generation, to explain to them what they missed? We can only try…

  4. Pappu – annam is the literal translation of varan bhat in telugu and my all time favourite comfort food…. i crave for this when tired, stressed or sick…always works like a charm! lovely post

    It really does all that – such a relaxed meal!

  5. awwww though my comfort food is rajma chawal I love the simplicity of varan bhat..never understood the sugar bit but hey the thecha goes well with it too! I remember in Maharashtra land they serve fresh green chilli thecha or red chilli and garlic mixed thecha…super yum super simple meals, long lazy afternoons!

    The teeny-tiny bit of sugar just rounds off the flavour. Varan bhat disarms with its simplicity! My family runs away from raw garlic especialy in chutneys but I love it!

  6. I love, love, love sada varan-bhat. It was our Sunday morning meal too, along with kadhi and bhaji. I ate sada varan-bhat every day during my pregnancy and can still eat it with a generous dollop of ghee. 🙂 Thank you for the comforting entry.

    It is truthfully a happy-meal!

  7. Anita, Lovely post……. and yes it is the comfort food for all Maharashtrians all over….yours truly included :)) Varan Bhat Tup Mith Limbu…aha….I am salivating……..At our place also we cook dal in a vessel in pressure cooker….

    Such a simple meal and how it makes us salivate! It is the associations too, I bet, Rujuta.

  8. I loved the post and the pictures. Yes we do ‘mash-up’ our dal/ parippu! 🙂
    i prefer the Prestige brand too for the ease with the lid. I always use the inserts with the with and without the wireframe. The rice, dal and vegetable sequence works with potatotoes and drozen drumsticks for the lunch sambhar! 🙂

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