Sujoy Chatterjee does not have a problem with basmati rice. He wants people to look beyond it. A rich and varied biodiversity of rice in his home state of West Bengal made him look through a different lens. He wanted to work with farmers, and be able to cultivate indigenous varieties for the urban rice-eater.
A revivalist of sorts, Chatterjee founded Amar Khamar or "my farm" (in Bengali), in 2019. It’s an initiative that works with the objective of empowering farmers, mostly women, to cultivate on a small piece of land. It assists them in selling traditional products like heirloom rice, pulses and spices directly to consumers. Today, Amar Khamar works with over 500 women farmers through rural co-operatives, farmers’ clubs and self-help groups in about nine districts such as north and south 24 Parganas, Nadia, Midnapore, Alipurduar, Darjeeling, Bardhaman and Birbhum. It has an e-shop (amar-khamar.com) and a physical store in Kolkata.
Chatterjee’s work in the development sector, mainly socio-economic research, entrepreneurship and social innovation takes him far and wide. Over the years it has brought him close to nature, and appreciate the fascinating biodiversity of the region. “When it comes to rice, our farmers produce excellent diversity, and we’ve a lot to learn from them to preserve the tradition,” he says. But, the foremost challenge was to alter the urban palate. Being a rice country, his aim was to make the process of cooking and eating traditional varieties of rice a pleasurable experience. He realised it was accustomed to only a handful of them. Chatterjee also felt the need to connect smallholding farmers with consumers, as they couldn’t sell their products directly due to absence of logistics, distance from big cities, and lack of market orientation. “Amar Khamar was an experiment where we wanted the urban rice-eater to cook and enjoy less popular varieties that are slowly dying out. The only way to do it was to make them available,” says the founder-director, who now retails 25 varieties of rice.
Chatterjee's concerns are also centred around habit. “Why is the size of the grain so important that we cannot appreciate the others? Why does it have to be white? Why do we have to pick basmati to cook something special?” he asks. The need to preserve the diversity of rice is even crucial at a time when climate change is for real. “Sustainable consumption is our priority, and our sole effort is to create this awareness so that people can eat differently,” he says.
Just when it had managed to bring about a shift in the mindset, the pandemic happened. Also a devastating cyclone Amphan that affected the farmers of Sunderbans, who had just started reaping the benefits of the platform. “On a positive note, we found our customers reaching out to us during the lockdown to buy rare varieties of rice because they had developed a habit. There were also times when customers offered to drive down in their own cars to collect the orders,” he informs. Albeit, things are now looking up. “Now people remind us of a lost variety of rice, maybe something that they used to eat in their childhood, and if we can source it for them," he says.
Amar Khamar is actively involved in the farmers’ networks, who have the best knowledge of the soil and climate. They use nature-friendly farming methods, and non-genetically modified seeds to grow rice. The research also entails working with experts who understand the agronomy of seed preservation and environmental changes. The farmers are involved in marketing campaigns and fixing costs, which give them exposure and confidence to connect with the urban market. The exercise allows them to fetch better prices. On the consumer end, considering the varieties are lesser-known, they demand specific knowhow such as cooking time or the kind of dishes they can be used for. The team also develops recipes, and works on pairings to educate the consumer. Before the nationwide lockdown, Amar Khamar had hosted culinary events, and involved the farmers as chefs.
Apart from rice, it also procures spices, ghee, honey, date palm jaggery and flours from various parts of Bengal. With a pan India delivery model, Chatterjee hopes to start the conversation around slow food. “Our customer is someone who is conscious about the environment, and they believe in our rich food heritage,” he says.
The online store also acts as a guide for those who are unfamiliar with the folk varieties of rice available in Bengal. It talks about cooking methods, recipes and pairing ideas. For instance, a medium-grained dudhersar (from Sunderbans) pairs best with a fish curry, and the aromatic GI tagged tulaipanji works beautifully in a biryani or pulao. The creamy-white kanakchur makes for the best congee, and the black-grained kala bhaat renders the most delicious of kheers and even risottos.
The next time you decide to cook biryani, give tulaipanji a chance. Who knows, you may not go back to basmati again.
Feast from the East is a series that celebrates the culinary heritage of eastern and north-eastern India. Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.