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In the land of bamboo blossoms

Bhangjeera Rock Salt Photo: Crop Connect

Bhangjeera Rock Salt Photo: Crop Connect  

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An impromptu quest for black sticky rice leads SHONALI MUTHALALY to local farmers and tribals who grow heirloom seeds, indigenous herbs and sturdy millets on remote farms

I’m craving sweet sticky rice, fudgy with coconut milk and topped with cool golden-yellow slices of mango. Not the boring white rice version, found in every Bangkok mall. I want nutty black rice, cooked to chewy perfection.

Before I come across as a particularly ditzy blend of Marie Antoinette and Kim Kardashian, let me hastily add that I’m not simply being high maintenance here. Besides, I have a way of complicating my life with a slew of exhausting principles. I don’t eat at restaurant chains, because it’s important to support local businesses. I won’t buy imported ingredients, because I worry about food miles. I’m on an organic spree right now, so I’m steadily cutting back on cosmetics, and grocery shopping takes forever, thanks to all the meticulous label-reading I’m forced to do. I’m also trying to go gluten-free in an ambitious attempt to get fit enough to do pull-ups in an appropriately badass manner. Though honestly, all I want to do right now is sit in ratty pajamas, eat bags of potato chips and shop for Korean snail cream online. But, I can’t. Because it breaks all my rules. Sigh.

Let’s not get distracted. (Side bar: Talking of distractions, I just took a 20-minute break for some relaxing online shopping, and bought a rose-and-saffron-infused day serum from an appropriately cruelty-free, eco-friendly, chemical-shunning responsible home-grown company. Don’t judge me. It’s hard being creative at 6 a.m.) (Additional side bar: Fine. I’ll admit I woke up at 5 a.m. to think about black sticky rice with mangoes.)

Now, how do I get my dessert without compromising on all my rules? I’m not being facetious about them by the way. I really do think it’s ridiculous to buy imported quinoa, chia, kiwis, etc when there is a wealth of high-quality, delicious, local produce to explore. The only difference is that our farmers don’t have the slick marketing muscle of the big corporates. Want black rice? Buy it from Karnataka, which has a version that’s practically purple with phytonutrients. Or, look towards Manipur, which has the aromatic indigenous sticky chak hao.

Last year, management consulting firm Technopak slated the Indian gourmet food market at USD 1300 million, stating that it is growing at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 20 per cent. Most of this is imported food. Urban consumers, mostly between the age of 16 and 40, are willing to pay big bucks for everything from Ossetra caviar to Roquefort. Besides fruits, chocolate and biscuits, they also spend on kale, couscous and gluten-free foods.

Look around India, bustling with traditional farms and small ventures, from millet growers to cheese producers, and you’ll realise it’s much more sensible to spend your money on local produce. Not only do you get more bang for your buck, but the products are also inevitably fresher and, hence, tastier. The challenge now is finding ways for our farmers to connect with urban consumers. That’s where companies such as Ishira Mehta and Puneet Jhajharia’s Original Indian Table (http://originalindiantable.com) come in. On the phone from Delhi, Ishira, who used to work with the World Bank in Washington, explains how she and Puneet launched called CropConnect in 2013, to bridge farms and city markets. They began with Arunachal Pradesh’s kiwis. “They’re called Chinese gooseberries and grow in the wild. We sold nine tonnes in the Delhi mandi, after manually grading them along with the farmers. They did so well, we noticed traders removing Australian stickers from the imported kiwis and putting them on ours, since ours were fresher: after all they had been plucked only 72 hours earlier.”

Last year, they decided to focus on indigenous ingredients. “We covered 20 States and 70,000 km meeting farmers, and we found that in remote areas, people are still growing heritage crops. Since these are indigenous, they’re hardy and don’t attract pests; so they’re often also organic.” Realising that consumers need to be gradually introduced to these products, they launched the Original Indian Table last August, offering curated boxes filled with ingredients, such as bamboo rice collected by tribals from the seeds of flowered bamboo in Karnataka, Jamun powder from Jharkhand and Nettle Tea from Uttarakhand. They now have a product list of at least 500 items, including almost 40 varieties of rice.

In an attempt to capture the imagination of the urban consumer, Ishira’s launching three types of exotic rock salt — infused with garlic, Himalayan lemon rind and seeds of the bhangjeera plant, found in the Garhwal hills of Uttarakhand. They’re also reviving the medicinal Gandrayani herb, selling it as Munsiari White Rajma.

As for my sticky rice? I found it on Giskaa (http://www.giskaa.com), after a fascinating hour of browsing though their stock, which includes dried shiitake mushrooms from Manipur, Navara rice from Palakkad, Himalayan wild apple candy and Bhut jolokia chilli flakes.

It’s sweet, nutty and aromatic. Perfect with local mangoes. It’s going to be a good summer.

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 6:03:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/in-the-land-of-bamboo-blossoms/article8504526.ece

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