Rice to the Occasion

This article was originally published under the same title in the Metro Plus supplement of The Hindu newspaper, Coimbatore, on 09 Jan 2017

This Pongal, celebrate Nature’s bounty by trying out some indigenous varieties of rice.

When we began our rice-with-bran experiment 10 years back, I proudly presented the unpolished, small grained organically grown Komal rice from a friend’s farm near Mumbai; our son looked at his plate and balefully asked, “Can we have some normal food in this house for Sunday lunch?” From that not so great beginning we have become a household that relishes Kuruva from Kerala, repeats Rajamudi from Karnataka, respects the deep red Mappilai Samba from Tamil Nadu and reveres the dark as the night Karuppu Kavuni. We find the universal, unnamed, polished white rice quite bland, having got accustomed to the distinct flavours of these rices.

Rajamudi - Indigenous varieties of rice
Rajamudi Rice, once a favourite of Karnataka’s Woedeyar Kings

The fully polished white rice that we get in the market is not the paddy rice our forefathers ate. They ate the flavourful, hand pounded rices grown locally during season. We have a rich cornucopia of rices ranging from white to red to black to scented rices. What we need to do is to welcome these back into our homes and diets. It is easier said than done, with all of us having become accustomed to fully polished white rice.

But on a misty, chilly December morning, with the dew drops on the grass soaking our city shoes when we walked to reach the rice diversity block in Panavelly, Wayanad at the Thanal Agro-ecology Centre I saw fully grown paddy plants, swaying in hues of green, yellow, red , rust, brown and purple and heard the cornucopia of names, Thondi, Kala namak, Mullan kazhama, Jeeraga saala, Burma black, Kuruva and the stories accompanying them. This rice diversity block with 219 varieties is one of the many maintained by the Save Our Rice Campaign, working across six rice growing states to conserve and promote traditional rices.

Gandhasale - Indigenous varieties of rice
Gandhasale Fragrant Rice

Every year sees more rice farmers from across the country joining the ranks of seed savers, conserving our rich heritage, to ensure protection of our diversity, food security and to create insurance against the vagaries of climate change. Interestingly most of these varieties do well under organic/natural conditions. Traditional paddy varieties are impressively climate resilient, Kattuyanam is flood and drought resistant. Ottadayan takes all of 180 days to mature but grows seven to eight feet tall providing plentiful fodder whereas arupatham kuruvai, as the name suggests, matures within 60 days providing short term income to the farmer.

What is good for biodiversity is also good for health and eating these traditional rices is a route to good health and promoting agro-biodiversity. Sundararaman Iyer, a well known organic farming guru says, ‘we all complain of micro nutrient and mineral deficiency while eating the same food year in and out, if we eat different rices across the year we could get many of the micro nutrients we require.’ However, there are many misconceptions about rice including that it causes obesity and is the cause of diabetes, and consequently there is an en masse exodus from rice to wheat or millets. Gandhasaale, my all time favourite rice, grown in the Western Ghats, known for its fragrance, reminds me of my father every time we cook it. This was the only rice he relished and could digest in his last few years while in fragile health. My farmer friend tells me that when grown in the plains it loses its fragrance. Almost all varieties have distinct nutritional benefits; for example the famous Navara rice is known for its medicinal properties and is used extensively in Ayurveda.

Pongal is upon us and it will be time to celebrate nature’s bounty. This is the best time to welcome these traditional rices into our plates. These would lead to a colourful and varied pongal array- a ven pongal with Kichadi Samba, Thuyamalli or Rajamudi rice ( a rice from Karnataka favoured by Wodeyar kings), a sakkarai pongal with one of the scented rices like Jeeraga Samba, gandhasaale or Mullan kazhama,, a payasam with Karuppu kavuni. With the accompaniment of organic jaggery, cashew nuts, raisins, green gram dal and delicious pepper from the Western Ghats, make it a healthy and tasty Pongal.

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