In 2016, Hansel Vaz was in Saligao, north Goa, buying garrafõe bottles for the feni he makes under the brand name Cazulo. The elderly Mrs Saldanha, who was selling him the bottles, happened to mention a variety of rice called giresal that used to grow in the paddy fields of Saligao, now a marketplace. Vaz hadn’t heard of it. “The rice was so fragrant that if you cooked it, the entire neighbourhood would smell it,” she told him.
Intrigued, Vaz asked his mother; she said the same thing. Giresal, once cooked on special occasions, is an aromatic short-grain rice with a black husk flavoured delicately for pulao or paired with fish curries.
With his business instincts and love for heritage kicking in, Vaz, now 38, decided to follow the trail. This year, he succeeded in sourcing the seeds from a Maharashtra farmer. He sowed these in July and is in the process of harvesting the first crop of, he hopes, about 15 tonnes.
He is not alone. A community farmer, Nestor Rangel, has been inspired to try growing the heirloom variety. Suraj Shenai, a friend of Vaz and founder of the Goa Brewing Company, plans to use the waste to develop a rice beer. Karl Fernandes, another friend and head of operations at Tesouro, one of the hippest bars in Goa, is working on the possibilities of a dessert drink.
Vaz is going the whole hog, trying to win the trust of farmers by promising to buy the rice they grow, even committing to buy the broken grains at a set rate (around ₹150 per kilogram, five times the current rate)—and eventually, raise funds for an heirloom seed bank that could distribute the seeds free. One day soon, he hopes their project, Against the Grain, can again make giresal integral to Goa’s cuisine.
Goa used to have around 30 indigenous rice varieties. Giresal grew in the flat lands of Saligao and Loutolim, Korgut in the saline estuarine waters, and Patani in the hills. In the trail of the Green Revolution, which started in the 1960s, these began making way for hybrids. Today, only the odd farmer grows giresal, for small-scale sale or personal consumption.
In 2016, someone told Vaz that farmers on the old trade route to Karwar might still be growing it. He contacted a church mission, which managed to contact a farmer who was willing to sell the rice to Vaz. The project was put on hold when Vaz suffered a heart attack.
Vaz took it up again during the 2020 lockdown. His family and neighbours tried to dissuade him—giving the project its name, Against the Grain. He reached out to everyone he had contacted in 2016. He made no headway: Farmers seemed to have stopped growing it altogether. “I thought the rice was dead,” he says.
Finally, he found a farmer in Maharashtra who was growing giresal on a small scale and was willing to sell 60kg. Just then, the second wave of covid-19 hit and Goa went into lockdown. Eventually, Vaz sowed his first batch of giresal, bought from that farmer, in July, on 10 acres that belong to his family. Rangel and he plan to plant the rice on a larger scale next year.
Not all of it will be fit for consumption, of course. “This is where Suraj comes into the equation, as there will be wastage and he can take that up,” says Vaz. Shenai, who had been thinking of brewing a rice beer in the Japanese style, currently uses Ukdo rice for a beer named Peoples Lager. He has tried brewing giresal and describes beer made with it as a crisp lager, with a taste of the rice, delicately subtle in flavour, and not overloaded with hops. It is a beer for sultry days. “We are creating a world-class lager which is comparable to the best in the world from our local varieties of rice,” he says. “Long-grain rice has benefited from smart marketing and short-grain ones are neglected,” he adds. “We have erased our rice culture.”
For Fernandes, the message hit home only when he visited the fields when seedlings were being planted. “The area smelt like baked pandan souffle,” he says. “Suddenly, I could relate to what Hansel was saying.” He believes the rice can be used in a dessert drink, on the lines of horchata, a Spanish rice-based hot beverage flavoured with spices, like a milky kheer. “We could create something between a kheer and a dessert drink based on rice and coconut feni for the sour notes that will control the sweetness of rice.”
On the ground, Vaz and Rangel are planning to rope in more farmers. “Our aim is to get local farmers to plant more of these local heirloom varieties, which are far better than high-yield varieties,” says Vaz. Rangel, who co-owns around 200 acres with other farmers in Santo Estevam village near Old Goa, plans to sow the rice on 50 acres. “Indigenous grains have developed over centuries. They grow without too much effort,” says Rangel, who doesn’t use pesticides and supplies directly to customers. They have not just cultural and economic value but higher nutritional value.
“My aim is for farmers to get better prices and protect our farmlands from being built over, as has happened in places like Santa Cruz and Saligao,” he says. “If the farmers get a better deal, they will stick to farming.”
Shenai and Vaz are also raising funds for an heirloom seed bank. The plan is to distribute the seeds free to interested farmers. “This is going to be our big project and slowly we may be able to create a change,” says Vaz, who sees Goa as a state of coconut, cashew and rice. “Goans are viewed as happy people but there is a lot of culture here,” he says. “Goa can be the culinary capital of India.”
Vrushal Pendharkar is a Mumbai-based environment journalist.