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A rediscovery of India and lunch with ‘Diana’

A little-known variety of diabetes-fighting rice from a forgotten corner of Karnataka reminds us that so much that is ancient and good in our culinary traditions is still unknown to most of us

Diana rice has a rich, nutty taste.(Photo by Samar Halarnkar)

By Samar Halarnkar

LAST PUBLISHED 13.01.2024  |  02:00 PM IST

In my early years as a penurious reporter at the dawn of the 1990s, I spent a lot of time in the vicinity of a south Karnataka taluka and town called Kollegal, often travelling by state transport bus and bumming rides off forest department officials. It was the age of Veerappan, a bandit, murderer, Robin-Hoodesque sandalwood smuggler and elephant poacher. The bloody trail that he left was the story of those years.

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I remember many things: crawling through the forests with members of self-declared “commandos" of the Tamil Nadu special police; stumbling on Veerappan’s mountainous cache of scented sandalwood; his gang’s defiant firing of ancient blunderbusses at police armed with modern carbines; and examining the remains of his gang’s recent meal of porcupine and rice in a cave redoubt.

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These were memorable memories to a 20-something young reporter looking for adventure and the next big story. What was not as memorable was the food, since I only remember nondescript vegetables, some passable country chicken and lots of white rice.

I specifically mention white rice because at the time I did not know or focus on any other kind of rice. I was dimly aware that when we visited Goa, the rice was different—red rice, as I later realised. In Kollegal itself, everyone ate white rice, including Veerappan. I remember seeing grains of it next to the porcupine quills and the blackened remains of the wood fire he and his men had made.

What I also did not know then, and what I got to know last week, was that under my nose, the locals selling meals in thatched lean-tos on the roadsides were probably eating an entirely different type of rice at home—or at least in some of their homes.

I was wandering with family through Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park when I stumbled on “Diana rice", at a little store that sells millets and other traditional local produce.

Where is this from, I asked the young woman running the store.

“Kollegal, in Karnataka," she replied. “It’s grown only there."

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Yes, I know Kollegal, I said, thinking how with Veerappan’s passing, the little town faded back into obscurity.

I had never heard of Diana rice, and I never knew that it was an ancient grain grown in the area. But then there is so much that we are learning about our own country these days because many good folks are involved in reviving heritage food and persuading us to eat it.

Last month, at a local fair, I ran into two young men from Kerala who were selling traditional rice varietals, at least three of which were unknown to me. They persuaded me to buy a “Black Glumed Navara", a “bone fortifying medicinal rice", according to the packaging, which touted it as an immunity booster, joint pain reliever and good weaning food. It is grown in Palakkad, Kerala, and is well known to mainly Ayurvedic doctors in that state.

The Navara, sold by a company called Qidhan and available on Amazon, is a full-bran red rice varietal, which I have not yet cooked. I did try out the Diana rice though. It, too, was unhusked, which means the nutritious husk was intact, not stripped away in the polishing, as is the case with the white rice that has taken over our kitchens and larders.

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Red, black and brown rice in general tend to lend more nutrition to your meal. However, red and black rice can make you feel bloated and might cause indigestion, if you eat too much. As always, adhere to the thumb rule of everything-in-moderation.

The Diana rice looks like red rice but is a shade darker than the red rice from Kerala or Goa. The woman who sold it to me warned that it needed to be soaked overnight and then cooked in double the water. Many traditional rice varieties require double or more water to ensure they become soft enough to consume.

In other words, Diana rice requires some love and patience. I gave it both and did not regret the effort. The rice had a rich, nutty taste and combined admirably with fish curry and a green salad. The daughter, a fierce advocate of white rice, doused it with leftover Naga pork curry and took a second helping.

A large portion of white rice often leaves me feeling full and sleepy, but two servings of Diana left me light and perky, even though it was dinner time.

So, how did Diana rice get its name?

I haven’t the faintest idea.

Multiple google searches threw up little information. I only learned that Diana rice is marketed today as “diabetes rice", known for its low glycemic index, which means it releases sugar slowly, has more fibre and protein and fewer carbs and calories.

The rice is sourced, produced, and marketed by the Jaivik Krishik Society, a federation of organic farmers set up a decade ago by the Karnataka government (the website appeared defunct but perhaps you can email them: jaiviklalbagh@gmail.com).

Finding new rice varietals has been a revelation. Each time I find one, I feel like I am discovering a hidden facet of the country I thought I knew so well. You could call it a rediscovery of India by rice, a reminder that so much that is ancient and good in our food is still unknown to most of us.

So, the Diana in my larder joins the Navara, Chak-Hao black aromatic rice from Manipur, another black varietal called “Forbidden rice" from West Bengal, Rajamudi rice from south Karnataka (once grown mainly for the Wadiyars, Mysore’s royal family), red rice from Kerala and Goa, apart from sundry brown and white rice.

My next objective is to return to and rediscover Kollegal one of these days, to see how that once-remote land has developed, if Veerappan has faded from their memory, and to see if I can, finally, track down and have lunch with Diana in her own home.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He posts @samar11 on Twitter.

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