Is Basmati rice, with its pristinely white grain, the only variety that lends itself to making a biryani? It seems a rather silly question to ask in a country where almost all biryani — whether at home or in a restaurant — is made with the long, fragrant grains of Basmati, never mind the origin or brand. But the question, posed by food historian Pushpesh Pant, is worth exploring. Pant proceeds to explain, “When you make biryani, you use spices like cardamom and cloves, which have a strong enough aroma that they mask the fragrance of the rice itself. So tell me, why would you use Basmati?” According to him, the rice that was originally used to make biryani was the non-aromatic, long-grained Tilak Chandan, grown in Uttar Pradesh’s Terai region. “But there’s been a tyranny of Basmati for so long that we’ve forgotten all the other varieties — especially the short-grained rice — that have been cultivated and used in different parts of our country for so many centuries,” he says.
For a land that is widely recognised as one of the birthplaces of rice, and, which has, according to the late Dr RH Richharia, pioneering rice conservationist and director of the Central Rice Research Institute in Cuttack, developed about 200,000 varieties of rice, India is far too enamoured of Basmati. And yet, while this “tyranny” of Basmati, as Pant puts it, persists, a small movement by a handful of Indian chefs and seed conservationists is putting the spotlight on many of India’s neglected — and vanishing — rice varieties. In the last few years, menus have featured rice as diverse as Karnataka’s Rajamudi, which was once grown especially for the Wodeyars of Mysore, Maharashtra’s short-cooked Ambemohar, which is named after the mango blossoms that its fragrance evokes; and Manipur’s Chak Hao Poreiton, a black grain that is used to prepare a rich, sweet and deep purple kheer.
How much rice does it take to satisfy one person’s hunger? Pazhankanji (fermented rice gruel from Kerala) made with fat-grained, earthy Palakkadan Matta rice is said to be so nourishing and filling that, once upon a time, one bowlful was usually enough to keep farmers going for an entire day in the fields. On the other hand, a few spoons of rich, sweet payesh made with Gobindobhog, Bengal’s prized short-grained, aromatic rice, will suffice even for those with a pronounced sweet tooth.
According to a well-known story from the Mahabharata, it took just one grain of rice — or five, depending on the version — to satisfy a god. The Pandavas, while in exile in the forest, were visited by Durvasa and his entourage. As was customary, the sage expected his hosts to feed him and his accompanying disciples, and, so, he instructed Draupadi to get the meal ready while he and his disciples bathed in the river. The Pandavas were accustomed to feeding large numbers of itinerant sages thanks to the miraculous akshaya patra, given to them by Surya, the sun god. This cooking pot ensured that each time it was used, there was an endless supply of food.
On the day of Durvasa’s visit, however, the Pandavas and Draupadi had already eaten and there was nothing left with which to cook a meal in the akshaya patra. Afraid that the sage — known for his quick temper — would curse her family if she failed to serve them a meal, a desperate Draupadi prayed to Lord Krishna. When he turned up on hearing her prayer, he also demanded to be fed. When Draupadi told him that there was no food left, Krishna asked to see the vessel. He peered into the vessel and discovered a single grain of rice that he popped into his mouth and declared feeling satiated by it — a feeling that was also experienced by Durvasa and his students simultaneously. Thus were a sage and his entourage fed, thanks to a single grain of rice consumed by a god.
The popular reading of this story is that what fills the stomach of god fills the stomach of his devotees. But another reading, which places the grain of rice itself at the centre of the story, could be that rice is the one food that can feed everyone, from gods to wise men and sages, to kings and queens and farmers toiling in their fields.
And yet, where there is diversity, the politics of difference — in India’s case, caste and class — comes into play. This is, after all, a land where certain types of rice, such as Rajamudi, were cultivated for the exclusive consumption of royalty. Pant, in fact, attributes the dominance of Basmati and the marginalisation of the so-called “coarse”, short-grained native varieties to the “rich man’s preference for long grains”. The consumption of polished white rice, once unaffordable, became aspirational with the steady migration from villages to cities. Pant adds, “We have developed a very narrow way of looking at rice, such as only in terms of the north-south divide, wherein we say that north India has always eaten wheat and south and east India have always eaten rice. But that’s not true. We are, as a whole, a nation of rice-eaters.”
Like with most foods, the story of rice in India is complex, influenced as much by local and regional preferences and conditions, as by faith, politics, nutrition science, top-down ideas about development and agriculture technology, and caste and class hierarchies.
One of the biggest factors that led to modern India’s increasing distance from the bulk of its indigenous rice varieties was the emphasis on cultivating new dwarf varieties, such as the high-yielding IR8, which were introduced in the 1960s during the Green Revolution. This was a time when the largely subsistence agriculture practised across the country was seen as insufficient to feed a growing population as well as boost the nation’s economic sovereignty. The native tall varieties simply could not match the output of the dwarf varieties. On the other hand, the former had evolved — over centuries — to suit the specific conditions of the regions they grew in. The use of the newer varieties frequently required more water than the local conditions could tolerate, and extensive use of chemicals in the form of fertilisers and chemicals, which in turn affected the soil quality and impacted the biodiversity of the region. Vandana Shiva, environmental activist and founder of the NGO Navdanya, which works towards seed saving, biodiversity conservation and farmers’ rights, says, “The water crisis was also generated by the depletion of the water table.”
The marginalisation of traditional varieties and the rising water crisis have led to a small, but determined seed conservation movement in India, driven by the likes of Debal Deb, who has cultivated over 900 varieties of rice in Odisha’s Niyamgiri Hills, and “Seed Mother” Rahibai Soma Popere, who has travelled all across Maharashtra to find and save the seeds of all kinds of native crop varieties. These conditions are also what prompted Abhay Bhatia, Shailesh Sakharam Awate, Pranav Khandelwal and Karan Khandelwal to found the Mumbai-based OOO Farms and promote the cultivation of native rice varieties using traditional techniques. “We used to go trekking in the Harishchandragad area in Maharashtra, where the major crop is paddy, and one farmer, who would guide us on the treks, told us about the problems he was facing. So, we started off on a small scale, really as a way of helping this one farmer that we knew, but it became a movement that right now includes 70 farms in the region and 12 villages,” says Bhatia. Advised by seed conservationist Sanjay Patil, the OOO Farms team began by scouring the region for the hardy and climatically-suitable native rice varieties. “We visited small scale and tribal farmers, asked them about native varieties and if they could spare three seeds for us. With the three seeds we would get, we then grew more and built a seed bank that today has some 150-200 varieties, out of which we sell 34 varieties,” he says.
When it comes to reputation, rice had a good run in India for centuries, until it collided with a combination of modern nutrition science and a preference for polished grains. This led to the deeply persistent myth that because rice is a “simple carbohydrate” it is an unhealthy choice for a people prone to lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and heart diseases. “There is no logic behind this belief that rice is especially ‘fattening’. Any food, if you have too much of it, is bound to create health issues. To completely stop eating rice and eat only wheat, as so many people still think they should do, is extreme,” says Kavita Devgan. The Delhi-based nutritionist and writer of Ultimate Grandmother Hacks (2018) says that among the many benefits of rice is that it is one of the most easily digestible grains, and highly recommended for those with sensitive stomachs. “This is necessary because today, thanks to our lifestyles, many of us do end up with digestive disorders. Rice is known to calm the stomach, particularly when it’s consumed as khichdi. This is something that our ancestors understood,” she says.
This classification of rice as a “bad” food is especially baffling given how essential the grain has always been to Indian life. “Our ancestors weren’t stupid to have evolved 200,000 varieties of rice. It is the grain of this land. Rice is the symbol of a sophisticated ecological civilisation,” says Shiva. According to her, over the centuries, Indians bred rice for maximum taste, fragrance and nutritional quality. “They have found a rice in Chhattisgarh that has medicinal qualities. Many varieties such as Bengal’s Kobiraj Sal, which was given to lactating mothers, have played a therapeutic role in diet. Eating different varieties of rice gave a diverse quality of nutrition. Quality was killed to create the paradigm of mass (production) in the dwarf varieties of rice introduced in India after the Green Revolution,” says Shiva.
Visitors to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) 2018-19 who strolled over from Aspinwall House to Cabral Yard next door would have witnessed a remarkable project that marries a vision of food as art with a conservationist and revivalist approach. At a stall run by the Edible Archives Project, the curious and the hungry would have had the opportunity to partake of meals — cooked by chefs Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar, Prima Kurien, Kiran Bhushi and Priya Bala — that brought together various native Indian ingredients, recipes and techniques. The hero of each meal, the core around which it was conceptualised, was always an indigenous rice variety, or a combination of varieties. So, if one day, you had a meal of moru curry and fish in mustard sauce with a combination of Hetumari and Kala Bhaat rices (both from West Bengal), another day you would be able to sample a raw mango dal, aloo posto and fish curry with Seeraga Samba and Kaatuyaanam rices (from Tamil Nadu). “There is a profusion of short-grained, fat rice varieties, which are usually completely dismissed, but are generally very good, highly nutritious, and tasty, even if unscented. But they have to be the indigenous ones, not the more commonly available hybrid varieties,” says editor Shalini Krishan, who, as part of the Edible Archives team has been documenting their work. “As the most highly-rated and often used variety, Basmati, feels overrated to us; in part, because…we are aware of the havoc it wreaks on the water table of the regions where it’s being grown. Unlike many rain-fed indigenous rice, or even commonly available hybrid rice that rely on irrigation, Basmati takes up groundwater,” she says.
While the Indian fondness for rice remains despite all the negative, nutrition-related associations, it is tempered to a large extent by an ignorance about the grain. This is something that the Edible Archives team discovered while manning their stall at KMB. “We had set it up in such a way that conversations about biodiversity and environmental practices were common. We did have to fight against certain assumptions, for example, that all small-grained rice are the same, or that there is some variety called brown rice. We had to educate people about rice, and show them the diversity that exists within the major types. For example, there can be 20 different types of red rice, grown in different parts of the country. Also, two varieties that look identical can be very different when cooked and have different nutritive profiles and tastes,” says Krishan.
Last year, on March 20, The Bombay Canteen restaurant in Mumbai’s Lower Parel celebrated Universal Pakhala Dibasa (a day to celebrate the rice-based Odia dish) by serving the traditional fermented rice dish with five forms of pumpkin. The pumpkin flower pakhala bhat, as it was christened, brought together two classic Odia dishes — pakhala and kakharu phula bhaja — for a modern creation that, nonetheless, paid tribute to the centuries of traditional wisdom that shape so much of Indian cuisine. “In the last five years, all the travelling that I have done across India has brought me so many epiphanies about all the ways in which people use rice. Every part of the country has its own varieties of rice which are used in specific ways. For example, as part of our Chettinad menu, we served a black rice payasam. People may think that this is a modern way of using rice, but actually, it’s very much a part of Chettinad’s culture,” says Thomas Zacharias, partner and executive chef at the award-winning restaurant, and an advocate of indigenous produce.
This is what Pant means when he says that when we think about rice, we need to think outside the paradigm of the dal-chawal-subzi meal. “The story of rice in India is fascinating, and it’s been used in so many creative ways. So when you talk about rice, talk about how it’s handpounded and made into chivda in Bihar. Talk about how it’s used to make idli and panta bhat. It’s made into khichuri, which is served as bhog during Durga Puja, and kheer, which is what the Buddha broke his fast with,” he says.
Still, experiments such as Zacharias’s are limited only to the urban elite and the question remains: how much of a difference does it really make to the future of these grains? Shiva sounds a sceptical note. While agreeing that the “rediscovery” of indigenous varieties by chefs is something to appreciate, she says, “Chefs suddenly waking up to biodiversity is important as a voice, not as an economy. If I, as a chef, use black rice to make one dish on my menu, how many farmers do I have the capacity to support? Every citizen must become conscious of what they are eating. This will protect the farmer, the land, and, their health,” she says.
Kashmir’s Mushk Budij: Perfect for the region’s cold climate, this is a short-grained rice with a distinctly sweet aroma and taste.
Uttar Pradesh’s Kala Namak: A long-grained, fragrant variety that gets its name from its black husk.
West Bengal’s Tulaipanji: A medium-grained aromatic rice that is highly resistant to pests.
Manipur’s Chak-hao Poireiton: A non-glutinous rice with a nutty, sweet flavour which is believed to be rich with anti-oxidants.
Assam’s Komal Saul: This “instant” rice is ready to eat after being soaked in warm water for a few minutes.
Odisha’s Kalabati: A nutritionally dense black variety which was brought back from the brink of extinction.
Goa’s Korgut: A salt-resistant red rice which grows well on inter-tidal mudflats and khazan (reclaimed) land.
Kerala’s Mullan Kazhama: A short-grained, plump, aromatic variety, this rice is used to make Malabar biryani.
Tamil Nadu’s Kaatuyaanam: With its light red grains, this rice grows tall enough to hide elephants, hence the name, which translates to “wild elephant”.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Written on the Grain’