History on your plate

This harvest season we explore heirloom rice, which is gaining popularity as people rediscover its intriguing flavours and learn how to cook with it

January 11, 2018 03:43 pm | Updated 03:43 pm IST

If millets have been the fad for some years now, a quiet revolution of sorts has been taking place alongside.

Heirloom rice varieties, fragrant, nutritious and packed with goodness, have been gaining popularity. From nutty, chewy kavuni arisi and maapillai samba that unfurls like a red flower upon cooking, to short-grained, sticky and aromatic gobindobhog and iluppaipoo samba reminiscent of mahua flowers, people across the country are discovering the magic of grains that once sustained our ancestors before being relegated to the background, in favour of faster-growing, high-yielding hybrid varieties.

In a way, this revolution seeks to right the wrongs inflicted on native varieties since the 1960s, and the Green Revolution that ensured food on everyone’s plate, but at a steep cost to biodiversity. Sheela Balaji, chairperson and managing trustee of AIM for Seva, which runs Spirit of the Earth, a Chennai store that sells heirloom rice, says that in the rush to plant high-yielding hybrid rice that required periodic use of pesticides and fertilisers, the country lost a huge amount of germ plasm.

“Food was on the plate, but traditional varieties, each of which came with a particular health benefit and linked to certain festive occasions or events, were forgotten.”

Back to basics

It helps that India, like the rest of the world, is seeing farmers and entrepreneurs make the journey to one’s roots. “Nammalvar, the Save Our Rice Campaign, Thanal, Sahaja Samrudha and some others have ensured that the common person is aware of varieties such as kaatuyaanam, karunkuruvai, kullakaar and mappillai samba,” says Balaji.

A lot of work has been happening in the South of the country, in a bid to restore a portion of the nearly one lakh varieties of rice the country once boasted. The movement has picked up steam in West Bengal too. Vikas Chadha of Satavic Farms in Kolkata speaks glowingly about gobindobhog, used to make offerings to deities and also for everyday use. “Much of India’s vast rice heritage has disappeared for good, but work is on to sustain at least some varieties,” he says.

Thriving revival

Alauddin Ahamed of North 24 Parganas in West Bengal has seen first-hand the benefits of getting farmers to adopt heirloom varieties. “I work in the Sunderbans, and in 2009, when we began our intervention, farmers earned just ₹3,000 a bigha (about 33 cents). Now, it’s increased four-fold to ₹12,000.” Among the varieties that have been resurrected are the lyrical dudeshwar, Kerala sundari (no connection to Kerala!) and bahurupi. And, helping consumers partake of these varieties is a project whereby farmers hire a four-wheeler to apartments in the city, sell farm-fresh produce within an hour of setting up shop and return with a tidy profit. “People line up despite the fact that our rice is sold at a 20% premium,” says Ahamed, who works with the Save Our Rice campaign.

It’s not that heirloom rice does not travel. If dudeshwar is used to make kheer in Bengal, it has been found to be a good rice to make idlis from, says Vishalakshi Padmanabhan, who along with her teacher-actor-farmer husband Kishore started Buffalo Back, a collective that propagates the organic way of life in Bengaluru. The couple farms in Kariappana Doddi, a village near Bannerghatta National Park. “Bengaluru and rural Bengaluru is drought-prone. But, the local rice doddabatha is drought-resistant. Even about 15 years ago, paddy was grown here.” Padmanabhan has a small parcel of land in the Western Ghats in the Sharavathi Valley, near Sagara. “Flood-tolerant varieties such as padmarekha, maranabudda (red rice that cooks fast) and karijiddu (a sticky rice used to make kajjaya , a sweet) used to be raised here. People would grow paddy when the water in the backwaters receded.”

A lot more varieties were revived, says Padmanabhan. “Only they are yet to reach the plates of people. The last couple of years, people have gone berserk eating millets. We have been trying to caution them to not go overboard with one grain and vilify another; Nature celebrates biodiversity. Why are we thinking mono-culture?”

At Buffalo Back, at any given time, about 10 varieties of rice are available. “I stock about two to three varieties that are good for idlis , some that are ideal for cooking and some coloured rice. I curate so that people explore varied flavours.”

Farm to table

Helping connect one end of this movement is Praveen Anand, executive chef, Southern Cuisine, ITC. As part of the hotel chain’s policy of responsible luxury, it serves heirloom rice under its ‘local love’ section in buffets and menus. “I’ve cooked with seeraga samba, kichili samba and kavuni arisi, among others; they bring their own distinct flavour, taste and bite,” he says.

Does Anand visualise a day when these rice varieties will rule store shelves? “It will take time, because the high cost coupled with lack of knowledge and cooking time are deterrents.”

In Manjakudi in Tiruvarur district, heritage grains such as thooyamalli, navara, kalanamak and gandhakasala are being raised in farmland and stocked at the store. “It’s heartening to see the kind of reception these grains have received. Word is spreading,” says Balaji. Is the transition going to be different? “Did we not change from white bread to brown bread? This is as important,” she states.

And then, Balaji speaks about string hoppers made from par-boiled mapillai samba or the iluppaipoo samba pongal. “It’s the softest sevai you’ll eat and the Pongal is delicious.”

Things will change, says Chadha, once a seamless platform is put in place. “We know where the best sushi is available in town, but not where to pick heritage rice.”

Browse through the options, and pick an heirloom rice, then cook it as advised and absorb its definite bite and myriad flavours. When you serve yourself this red, brown or black rice on a plate you are encouraging farmers who have made the switch to tradition. And fortifying a necessary trend.

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