Year after year on the 14th of January or sometimes 15th, like in many Kannadiga homes, the tradition is, whether or not we eat anything else, there is always one thing fixed on the festive menu – Ellu Bella (pronounced yelloo-bella) (sesame seeds – jaggery).
It is not much of a recipe at all but just a medley of simple ingredients as anyone can see it. What makes it special however is that, it is never made for eating alone but, in spite of the tedious work involved it is always prepared in quantities large enough to be shared with as many people as one possibly can.
Or at least, that is how it used to be.
It was less of a recipe and more of a festive collaboration which somehow always called for the biggest utensil in the house. Sure it did, as it was not just for the family, but for distribution among relatives, neighbors and friends, its quantity only limited by our social circle. And because it was not sold in shops back then (well, they would not buy from the stores anyway!), preparation had to begin a good two weeks before, at the dawn of the new year.
The big utensil I could almost sit in, was the most ordinary of them all. Making of Ellu Bella back in the late 80’s was also the once-in-a-year time of appearance for a couple of special characters.
Those must have been my middle school days. In my Taatha’s (maternal grand father) fifty year old kitchen, in a quaint, often cobweb covered corner of the cement slab top shelf, a spot was perennially taken by a stout and faded polythene gunny bag. It was the sand bag, with a story. No ordinary sand. It was one of the main ingredients in making Ellu Bella.
Nothing less would do than carefully selected silt sand collected from a clean spot of the river bed, cleansed thoroughly with several changes of water and sun dried for later use. That sand was preserved year after year with the same sanctity as are pickles and probably even handed down to the daughters in need.
The sand had a purpose. Perfectly roasted peanuts.
Once a year, when it came out of the bag, this precious sand would go on multiple stir frying trips in several batches, along with peanuts in a heavy super sized cast iron “Baandli” (pronounced baand-lee aka kadai). When all was done, it would promptly return to its familiar corner.
The other lead supporting role was that of an indispensable Betel nut cutter, a special kitchen tool to chop betel nuts called “Adike katri” (uh-di-kay cutthree), the open secret behind precisely hand-cut jaggery and copra in tiny uniform bits, those days.
It was less of a recipe, really and more of a tradition.
Today I live in the modern world, but there is an old fashioned side to me who still believes in and likes all aspects of keeping this tradition alive.
Ellu Bella and Sankranthi are synonymous and because Ellu plays a vital role on this auspicious day, a typical festive day starts with a ritualistic bathing in water mixed with white sesame seeds. Traditional Pongal and a sweet version of it called Shakkarai Pongal are a must on the festive spread.
Highlight of the day is “Ellu Beerodhu”, the act of house hopping to distribute among friends, neighbors and relatives, the typical Sankranthi offering – a plate adorned with Ellu Bella in a small container, Sakkare Acchu pieces, jujube fruits (elachi hannu in kannada, ber in hindi), freshly harvested sugarcane, flowers, betel leaves and betel nuts in pairs, a pair of bananas and the turmeric-vermillion duo for auspice.
Few festivals are celebrated with fervor like this one, especially for kids below the age of five. At dusk, ladies of the house gather to make a potpourri of Ellu Bella, tiny pieces of sugarcane, jujube fruits, flowers and some small change to be filled in a “paavu” (pronounced paa-voo, a traditional measuring unit made of brass and iron) and poured on the heads of small children for good health, cheer and a long life, over Aarti and songs.
In keeping the traditions and the festive frenzy of Ellu Bella give and take, it is not uncommon to accumulate way more of it than the entire family can consume. If you are like us, who cringe at the thought of wasting good food or are simply tired of the thought of all the chewing that Ellu Bella calls for, I have a quick and tasty chutney recipe to use up leftovers and it comes in very handy for breakfast. Hope you like it..
Now, before you jump to that,
Tell me a thing or two about the traditions you cherish the most..
A festive trail mix of roasted peanuts and sesame seeds, dried coconut and diced jaggery made especially during Makara Sankranthi festival in Karnataka
- 3 cups peanuts
- 1 medium copra or 1 cup small diced dry coconut / kobri / copra
- 1-2 jaggery cubes or about 6 small ones or 1-1/4 cup small diced jaggery darker the brown, the better
- 1-1/2 cups white sesame seeds hulled
- 3/4 cup split dalia / chutney dal ~ optional
- Gunny bag or Burlap rag
- Roasting Heat a skillet, pan or kadai on high heat for a few minutes. When the skillet is really hot but not smoking (wave palm over the skillet to judge the heat), pour in a cup of peanuts and either keep stirring swiftly or toss the peanuts in the skillet multiple times until they begin to crackle. Transfer to a plate to cool. Repeat with the remaining peanuts one cup at a time until all done.
- Pour in half of the sesame seeds now and repeat until they swell up but not browned. Do not wait for them to crackle. Hulled sesame seeds do not crackle. Transfer to another plate to cool and repeat with the remainders.
This one is a little messy, but the best way I've known. When peanuts are completely cooled, place a gunny bag or burlap rag on a flat surface and pour some onto the center of the gunny bag. Rub one end of the rag over the peanuts until the skin loosen out. Blow away the husk, separate the nibs (the tiny piece at the growing tip of the peanut) and discard. Transfer only the cleaned white peanut halves to a large bowl. Peanuts will be a light brown in color without burnt spots, when roasting is done right.
Cut whole copra into halves and grate the outer brown skin off until it is white on the whole. This is mainly to make it more palatable i.e., keep it from getting lodged between teeth pockets. Small dice copra pieces to about quarter the size of peanuts as shown in the picture above. A sharp knife with a wide blade like the Santoku knife comes in handy to chop it up in less time.
- Small dice jaggery to the same size as that of the copra pieces.
- Toss them all together along with dalia optionally and store in a clean dry airtight container.
- After all, if you did not taste a single roasted peanut yet, I'd be surprised!
As the recipe is a simple medley of ingredients, cannot stress enough on the use of quality ingredients.
Buy healthy looking peanuts without visible signs of worms (white cob web kinda thing is a sure shot sign of worm)
If unsure about whole copra, buy copra halves that look clean and not brown. Brown ones indicate that they are old and most likely will be hard and difficult to chop or bite.
Dark brown jaggery blocks or cubes (darker the better) are preferable over the lighter ones as the latter are usually bleached.
*I would have preferred to use natural white sesame seeds (unhulled, skin intact). However, I read that when used in large quantities, the oxalate content in them can cause harm, especially to those on oxalate restricted diet (those who are predisposed to kidney stones). Hulled (husk removed) seeds are better tolerated and digested in larger amounts.
Ellu bella is best consumed within a week to ten days as the roasted nuts and seeds tend to turn rancid soon at room temperature.
Making sure that the skillet or kadai is absolutely hot before beginning to roast is important to ensure roasting is even and gets done quickly.
When making a smaller quantity, gunny bag is not necessary to remove peanut skin, comes handy for larger quantities though.
Roasting peanuts is possible even in the conventional oven if you have.
For the waste conscious, peanut husk can be used for composting. If you are wary of those tiny bits getting into your teeth pockets, just pulse them all together in a mixer, roll them into Laddoo and enjoy!
Ellu Bella Pudina Chutney made with leftover Ellu Bella
makes 3/4 cup chutney
- 1 cup Ellu Bella
- 1 small bunch of mint leaves / pudina washed
- 2 red chillies
- about 1 tsp size tamarind
- salt to taste
- 1 tsp peanut oil or any neutral oil
- Pinch the leaves off them stem and pat them dry on a clean kitchen towel.
- Heat oil in a pan or kadai over medium heat. When the oil is hot enough or shimmering, pop in the red chillies and saute until brown spots appear. Do not let it smoke or burn.
- Remove the chillies to a plate reserving the oil in the pan. In the same oil, saute the mint leaves until the hissing subsides and they are wilted but not burnt. Next, gently roast the tamarind for a minute or two just to remove any remnant moisture in it.
- Transfer the roasted red chillies and mint, tamarind, salt and Ellu bella into a small jar grinder or blender in that order and grind to a paste with just enough water. The order is to make sure that the red chillies are completely fine ground, in case of lack of spinning space in a small jar. Taste and adjust seasoning as required.