Romancing the rice

Chitra Balasubramaniam | Updated on January 13, 2018
Long live the grain: Moodakettal in progress at a tribal settlement in Wayanad . It is a traditional method of preserving the indigenous rice seeds. Photo: K K Mustafah

Long live the grain: Moodakettal in progress at a tribal settlement in Wayanad . It is a traditional method of preserving the indigenous rice seeds. Photo: K K Mustafah   -  The Hindu

Thalassery biryani

Thalassery biryani

Look beyond the basmati, ponni and parimal on the shelves of your supermarket. Hundreds of indigenous varieties are awaiting a chance

Chak hao, jeeraga samba, navara, champakali, jeerakasala, pokkali, bora, joha, Vishnu bhog, Madhu raj, baisur, tilkasturi, korma... These are not random entries from a book on Indian names, but varieties of indigenous rice. It may sound Greek and Latin to some but some foodies and connoisseurs swear by these types. Think for a moment of some mouthwatering rice dishes — the comforting khichuri (Bengali for khichdi), biryani, pulao — and the rice these are made of, and it is likely that your vocabulary won’t extend beyond basmati, ponni, parimal and a handful. Pity, if one considers the hundreds of varieties which constitute the indigenous rice bowl of India.

So how many varieties of rice are there in India? There is no published data on this. What is often repeated is that the late Dr RH Richharia, the leading rice scientist, said that nearly four lakh varieties existed during the Vedic period. During his lifetime — a glorious 87 years (1909-1996) — he believed that around two lakh varieties were still around. Some others peg the figure at a lakh. It is said that if one were to consume one variety of rice a day, it would take nearly 250 years to consume every available type.

Some indigenous varieties are scoring well among discerning foodies of late.What is boosting the demand is of course the craving to try the niche and the unique. And there are companies catering to this clientele, though the selection may be limited. Kerala-based Nirapara’s offering include jeerakasala along with Jaya, Palakkadan matta, cherumani, Surekha and pokkali. In my quest for black and red rice, I discovered justorganik.com, zizira.com and giskaa.com.

The aromatic jeerakasala is de rigueur in the famous Wayanad and Thalassery biryanis. It is also referred to Wayanad kaima. Thalappakatti biryani uses seeragasamba or jeeraga samba. Kala namakfrom Uttar Pradesh, which is being revived, has received a GI mark. One of the earliest varieties I was exposed to was the black rice from Manipur called chak hao, pronounced sa hao. It is used to make the traditional kheer. And what a kheer it makes. It doesn’t take much sugar. When the rice is boiled with milk, a gentle aroma floats inside the house. The kheer turns a shade of purple, like black currant ice-cream. It is flavoured with bay leaf, after which a few spoons of sugar is added. It has gained in popularity given the health benefits. (Varieties like arunguruvai, kattu yanam and kullakkar have a low glycemic index and is recommended for diabetics.)

Cooking black rice for a meal is fairly simple: cover the desired amount with two inches of water and then let the water simmer off until the grains are al-dente. Keep a check on the water level and occasionally stir the pot so that there’s always some liquid till cooking is complete. Once done, fluff out the rice and let it cool.

A rice from Kerala, which was used by ayurvedic practitioners in poultices in combination with various medicinal herbs, has also found favour. A nice purple in colour, the navara is used for Panchakarma treatments. Away from spa sessions, the rice, when boiled with milk, is considered beneficial for healing internal wounds. It is also used in a broth for weaning infants. Navara, which also enjoys a GI tag, is a 60-day crop and is gaining popularity among organic farmers in Andhra Pradesh.

Chitra Balasubramaniam is a Delhi-based food, textiles and travel writer

Published on March 03, 2017

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