Traditional Rice Varieties of India – Its relevance today

Our introduction to traditional rice varieties began with the Save our Rice Campaign that I was involved in. As part of the Campaign, we were visiting farmers’ farms, meeting and motivating farmers to conserve traditional paddy varieties, organising seed and rice festivals, and developing rice diversity blocks. It is as part of the campaign that I took home the first traditional rice variety, knowing its name, knowing where it was cultivated it and who farmed it, knowing the provenance of my food.  It was Gandhasaale, an aromatic rice variety, growing in the Western Ghats, it has a heavenly fragrance that slowly spreads around the house when the rice starts cooking in the pot.  An interesting story that the farmer told me is that the variety has fragrance only when it is grown at an altitude and gets low night temperatures. They discovered it, he said, when a farmer grew it in the plains and found that the rice had no aroma.

traditional rice varieties

Since the start of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, its single point agenda of increasing yield of paddy became the mantra for the agriculture departments/universities in the country. As a result, traditional varieties have been slowly dying out. When farmers got seeds from the market, initially really cheap or even free, they stopped saving seeds. Some committed farmers continued saving and using their traditional varieties but by the early 2000s most farmers had given up on them. Over the years, we began losing the thousands of varieties of landraces that were part of our food and agricultural heritage.

At the same time processed food, with different kinds of food items made with a small range of grains, have us the false notion of variety in food. We began mistaking variety for diversity. Today we have given up diversity and embraced variety. So we grow and eat less diverse grains, foods and also eat more non-local food, more processed and less whole food, impacting our health and environmental wellbeing.

The Traditional Rice Varieties

Traditionally, every variety of rice has had an agricultural significance and food significance. Some varieties are suited to certain soils, others require lower night temperatures, others can withstand drought and/or flood, while some others are salinity tolerant. Many grew tall providing enough hay for fodder and roofing, whereas some had awn protecting the grain from birds (especially in the aromatic varieties where the birds are attracted by the aroma that begins right in the field), some were short season, suitable for the summer rains, whereas others matured slowly taking all of 180 days. The particularities are endless. Rare scientists like Dr R.H. Richharia have documented tens of thousands of landraces and their properties and spent years studying these varieties. 

The particularities of the varieties do not end with the paddy plants, duration, seasonality, etc. The grains also have their unique features. They have specific nutritive, cooking and eating qualities. Also traditionally specific rice varieties were used for specific purposes. Every culture had its list of rice for specific seasons and purposes, which were dependant on the growing season, climate, cultural observances (which, again, like harvest festivals, were linked to the agricultural calendar).

The agricultural families ate the rice they grew. It was converted to parboiled rice in their own yards and either hand pounded or milled and eaten. There was special rice for making tiffin items, those that were preferred for table rice, separate ones for making flattened rice and puffed rice.  Aromatic rice had their exalted place, preferred by the royal families. The rice with medicinal properties was another precious bunch. However as one rice expert said, “… what medicinal rice? Every traditional variety has some nutritive or medicinal property. We just need to know it.” 

Sundararaman Iyer, an organic farming guru from Tamilnadu says, “The greater the varieties of rice you eat the less you are likely to experience micro-nutrient deficiencies.”  Today, unfortunately, we have narrowed our choices to a handful of varieties and consume them polished devoid of fibre and minerals. We, instead, eat a range of processed foods made with the same grains and mistake variety for diversity. However, it is diversity that will give us a range of nutritional elements – apart from fulfilling our need for varied taste. Each of the different kinds of rice has their particular taste profile, and often, most people develop their personal favourites. 

In Kerala, the parboiled red rice was preferred for table rice with traditional rice varieties ranging from Thondi and Paal Thondi from Wayanad to Kuruva, Chitteni and Chettinad from Thrissur and Palakkad. Each region had its own specialities. In Palakkad, a variety Thavala Kannan was cultivated mainly to make aval (flattened rice or Poha) for offering at the Devi temple. 

Each region had hundreds of varieties. The Save Our Rice campaign alone conserves over 250 varieties in Wayanad, over 700 varieties (from all over) in Karnataka, over 140 varieties in Tamil Nadu and hundreds of varieties in Chhattisgarh/Jharkhand and W Bengal. Of these, most varieties are conserved as an end in itself, and about twenty to forty varieties are grown in large quantities to be consumed as rice.

farms

What we have come to realise is that the enthusiasm that the farmers have to try out and improve these varieties is unfortunately not matched by the willingness of consumers to try out these diverse varieties. This is due to various reasons. It ranges from lack of time and attention to focus on cooking in the house to reluctance to try something new (the irony, however, is that urban consumers are trying newer cuisines every day)  to something trivial like these varieties take longer to chew and eat! Most traditional varieties also take longer to cook, as most are made available with bran. But we overlook the fact that this is what enhances the nutritional profile of these rice!

For example, in Tamilnadu, Mappilai Samba, a traditional rice variety that had almost slipped into oblivion is now gaining popularity. It is known for its strength-giving properties. It got its name from having been fed to potential bridegrooms so that they could pass the test of strength to win the bride. Today this rice in its unpolished form is becoming popular for health reasons and also because it has a relatively lower glycemic index.  Since it takes longer to cook, many prefer to use the red rice as flour to prepare popular South Indian snacks like puttu, kozhukattai and adai with the Mappilai Samba rice. Similarly the Poha (flattened rice) and puffed rice (pori/kurmura) made with Mappilai Samba are superlative. Not only can they be used to make typical South Indian snacks; you can eat it as is or even make Bhel or Muesli. Such versatility!

bel puri

Poongar, another red rice grown in Tamil Nadu is called the women’s rice. According to oral knowledge shared by farmers, this rice has properties to help women overcome many a health problem ranging from gynaecological issues to joint pains. 

Ilupai poo samba, a white rice that is had as kanji is again preferred by women and used to be regularly consumed by them in the Thanjavur rice-growing belt. With a faint fragrance this rice kanji is filling and delicious, it gets its name. I distinctly remember during our travels through Thanjavur visiting rice farmers, unexpectedly I developed a fever, this was the time we reached the home of Ashokan Anna, who grow Ilupai Poo samba. His wife gave me a cup of Ilupai poo samba Kanji, I asked for a second cup despite the fever, as it felt very soothing and light and kept me going. 

traditional rice

In Karnataka, Rajamudi rice, one of the varieties preferred by the Wodeyar kings is being revived by farmers and is gaining popularity. A mix of red and white grain, this is excellent for table rice and also making variety rice. It is a preferred as it has the property to mix with the gravies and absorb the taste making it a delicious table rice suitable for  South Indian meals.

parboiled rice

We at Bio Basics also offer two traditional white rice varieties from Tamil Nadu – Kichadi Samba and Thooyamalli. Both have excellent cooking quality and are equally good as parboiled rice or raw rice.  I personally prefer Kichadi Samba because of its sweetness. These rices are great for making variety rice as well.

parboiled rice

Jeeraga Samba, known as the Basmati of the South is a slender, aromatic rice, very popular in Tamilnadu and Kerala. It is one of our favourites. One of the peculiarities I have found is that the rice doesn’t go bad, kept outside and is good enough to be eaten the next day.  In fact, this is the case with many traditional rice varieties. Since the traditional varieties I have consumed are all grown organically I do not know if this is due to the absence of synthetic chemicals used in growing or due to the inherent property of the rice variety. 

traditional rice

The Gobinda Bhog aromatic rice from West Bengal, small-grained, sticky, with an aroma is delicious to make kheer (payasam) or any sweet. I love this rice for just plain rice also; it makes any side dish palatable and just goes down the throat like a fragrant breeze.

How can I forget the Mullankazhama, the aromatic rice that had gone away from the fields and the plates that have been revived. Neither slender nor small, this round grained unusual looking aromatic rice has a unique flavour and is preferred for making the Malabari Biriyani. Like every other aromatic rice, this is also excellent for making desserts.

The medicinal rice is an altogether different class. Each has its own property, from dealing with acne to arthritis to pregnancy-related issues to cancer to headaches to skin infections to stomach upset to heartburn and much more. Navara being the most well-known, used extensively in Ayurveda for external use as kizhis and also for consuming as kanji.  This is not the only one; Valiya Chennelu, Raktasali, Karibhatta and numerous others are a storehouse of curative properties. And this is not even the tip of the richness that is available.

How about trying some traditional rice varieties?

The farmers are doing their bit of growing diverse varieties, under organic conditions and bringing it to us with minimal processing. Now, what do we have to do? I suggest we stop outsourcing the most important task in our life – how and what to feed our families and ourselves.

We are happy to try out new cuisines, variations of existing cuisines. Then why do we hesitate to try out a new rice? We know our taste buds have a lifespan of twenty-one days and we can get used to any new food. So, why don’t we try the various rice varieties

traditional rice

It is only when we connect to farming, farmers and food can we understand the inextricable relationship we have with the traditional rice varieties of our region.  Today with modern transportation, we also have the privilege of trying rice varieties from different regions.  The commitment of the seed saver farmers should be matched with our passion to incorporate these varieties into our diets.

If we devote some time to experiment with these varieties, if we can commit some time to prepare innovative, tasty dishes with unpolished/semi-polished rice making them healthy and tasty we would be spared the difficulty of cutting it out of diets, for fear of diabetes and obesity. 

Paddy rice is not the culprit, we are the culprits, we polish the rice beyond recognition, we do not try out the range of traditional rice varieties with diverse nutritive profiles, and we do not try new and interesting ways of preparing and making them popular. In any case, all of us from rice-growing regions love rice. Like the farmers who have begun conserving out of sheer love for the grains, let us do our bit to learn more, prepare more varieties and adopt them into our diets in a healthy and delicious form.

This is just the story of rice; we have similar deep diversity in millets, wheat, pulses, and so on. What we need to do is eat our way into diversity. Only if we eat diversity will the farmers grow it. Only if the farmers grow these diverse varieties of these diverse crops – this agri-biodiversity – can we maintain and carry forward this heritage of seeds, which is the collective wealth of humankind. 

Check out our website for more traditional rice.

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