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A campaign to preserve Indian foods in danger of vanishing

Rajasthan’s kumatiya seeds and Tamil Nadu’s seeraga samba rice to take centrestage at a showcase of vanishing foods next month

Svatma's tamarind rice. 
Svatma's tamarind rice. 

With commercial agriculture and monoculture gaining ground and climate change threatening livelihoods and habitats, many of the foods that were consumed by traditional communities or endemic to a region are being lost. Various movements around the world are making efforts to reverse this. Two such foods from India—kumatiya seeds from Rajasthan and seeraga samba rice from Tamil Nadu—will be in the spotlight during the upcoming Food For Change 2021 campaign.

The campaign,which runs from 7-10 October, is organised by Relais & Châteaux, an association of luxury hotels and restaurants, along with Italy-based global, grassroot association Slow Food International’s Ark of Taste, a 25-year-old online catalogue of over 5,500 foods facing extinction. It aims to save everything, from plant varieties and animal breeds to traditional processed products such as cheeses, cured meats, breads and sweets, from 150 countries, and currently features over 100 Indian products, including Naga bamboo and Meghalaya wild plum.

The campaign is an annual effort to promote traditional foods that are in danger of vanishing owing to changes in consumption and cropping patterns, climate threat and environmental degradation.

Kumatiya are the shiny flat seeds of the small, thorny deciduous tree Acacia Senegal, used in Rajasthani panchkuta, a mixed vegetable preparation that is particularly popular during the festival of Shitala Ashtami, a week after Holi. Seeraga samba is a variety of short-grained rice indigenous to Tamil Nadu.

Also read | Biodiversity 'hot spots' will be hit hardest in warming world

This year, two Relais & Châteaux properties in India—Sujan Jawai and Svatma—will plan their menus around kumatiya seeds and seeraga samba rice. Across Relais & Châteaux properties worldwide, for three days in October, chefs will cook foods from the Ark and explain to guests why biodiversity and culinary heritage matter.

Megha Verma, maitre de maison of Sujan Jawai, a luxury safari camp in Rajasthan, is working with kumatiya. “One afternoon during the lockdown, our head chef Govind and I were walking past an Acacia senegal tree and he recalled childhood memories of collecting the seeds and taking them home for his mother to store and use for cooking,” she recalls. The seeds are rich in protein, phosphorus, zinc, and selenium, and are used not only in culinary delicacies but also to make glues, cosmetics and textiles. The trees are vital to the traditional agroforestry system as they fix nitrogen and improve soil fertility, but vast tracts have been cleared for agriculture.

“We have successfully rewilded large sections of the Jawai wilderness with indigenous trees. Villagers are free to take the seeds from us as we encourage them to keep growing kumatiya,” says Verma. She plans to showcase the seeds through kumatiya kadhi, a yoghurt-based curry thickened with gram flour, boiled with kumatiya seeds and tempered with ghee, spices, dry red chillies and curry leaves.

Sujan Jawai's Kumatiya kadhi 
Sujan Jawai's Kumatiya kadhi 

The other Indian ingredient approved for the campaign this year is Tamil Nadu’s seeraga samba rice. Kannan Sridhar, senior general manager of Svatma, a boutique hotel and gourmet restaurant in Thanjavur, nominated it. “There are 182 types of paddy grown in Tamil Nadu and seeraga samba is one of the finest varieties of rice from the state. It is rich in phytonutrients, selenium, and fibre,” he says.

This starchy, aromatic, short-grained rice takes its name from seeragam or cumin, as it resembles the small, oval seeds of the spice, while samba refers to the season in which the rice is grown, August to January.

“As people have started using polished rice for everyday cooking, the yield of seeraga samba has reduced, and it is now mainly used for making biryani and in wedding catering,” explains Sridhar. During the campaign period, Sridhar plans to highlight the versatility of this rice at Svatma by using it to make everything from dosa and idli to tamarind rice.

Puliyodharai (tamarind rice) by Kannan Sridhar
300 grams seeraga samba rice
1 tbsp jaggery

For puliyodharai powder
One-fourth tsp fenugreek seeds
6–8 dried red chillies
1 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tbsp Bengal gram
1 tbsp white sesame seeds
1 tbsp peppercorn
Half tbsp asafoetida

For the paste
150 gm tamarind pulp
1 pinch turmeric powder
Salt to taste

For the tempering
100 ml gingelly oil
50 gm roasted peanut
Half tbsp mustard seeds
5–6 dried red chillies
6 cashew nuts
1 tbsp black gram
1 tbsp Bengal gram
One-fourth tsp asafoetida powder
10 curry leaves, small


1. Boil the rice and set aside to cool.
2. In a thick iron pan, dry-roast fenugreek seeds, dry red chillies, coriander seeds, and Bengal gram till you get an aroma. Dry-roast sesame seeds separately. Combine all together, add asafoetida and peppercorn, and grind without adding water to make a dry powder.
3. Mix tamarind pulp, turmeric, and salt and set aside.
4. Heat oil and add the mustard seeds, dry red chillies, black gram, Bengal gram, curry leaves, peanut, cashew nuts, and asafoetida.
5. When dal turns golden brown, add tamarind paste and let it cook on medium flame for about 15 minutes till it’s reduced to half.
6. Add jaggery and cook for another 10 minutes till it forms a thick paste.
7. Mix in the puliyodharai powder without allowing lumps to form and cook till the oil comes on top.
8. Allow to cool and then mix gently with cooked rice and serve hot.
9. Drizzle ½ tsp of gingelly oil for added flavour.

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