Seeking our rice roots in the red, brown and black
For too long have Indians endured the tyranny of basmati in a country that is still flooded with varieties of traditional rice
Like every other urban Indian household, we make basmati rice—but very infrequently, mainly when someone is visiting. We rarely cook it for ourselves.
This did not happen overnight. You know how it is when you don’t do something simply because you do not know about it. It’s been that way for us with rice—as, I suspect, it has been for many who are thoroughly urbanized and are dimly aware that India had, and still has, thousands of varieties of rice.
When I was living and cooking for myself in my 20s and 30s, there was either “ration rice"—low-quality polished rice bedevilled with bugs and stones—or there was fragrant, long-grained basmati. There was no question of cooking anything other than basmati when I could afford it. When I lived in the US for two years in the early 1990s, I found an American duplicate from Texas called Texmati, and I blindly stocked my larder with it. This basmati obsession continued into my early 40s, by which time I was married and getting introduced to the finer things in life by my wife, who has always been substantially more sophisticated and hip than I am.
Together, we discovered a world beyond basmati. It has been so exhilarating that visits to that old shore are getting rarer every year.
When we first realized that polishing rice strips it of nutrients and minerals, we were gobsmacked—at least I was. Really? That aromatic, fragrant basmati was a nutritional desert? Largely, yes. Since some of our dietary cues came from the West, I must shamefacedly admit that we turned to generic brown rice. During other trips abroad, we found trendy organic stores offering black rice from the Philippines, China and everywhere the US retail monster could wriggle in.
It’s only in this decade that we have truly got in touch with our rice roots. We now know that there are few countries with such a diverse rice tradition as India. Over the years, we’ve found and experimented with some of them. This is particularly easy because we live in the south, where many rice varietals are freely available, even in cities.
I have noticed that the Ambur and Dindigul biryanis available aplenty in small “biryani hotels" in the neighbourhood use small-grained samba rice; and hotels serving Kerala food typically use a fat red rice they call matta, which is not too different from the boiled variety we call ukde xitt (literally, boiled rice) in Goa. Nearly four years ago, we found rajamudi rice—originally grown for the Mysore royal family, the Wodeyars—at a local store. It’s a brown rice that veers towards red and does not need to be soaked, as many indigenous varieties do. I noted then that like broiler chicken, we have a national obsession with white rice; our minds have become monocultures, and our brains are happy about it. What we do not know and do not experience, we do not miss. Now that our minds have been broadened to the myriad possibilities of rice, there is no going back. Wherever we travel in India, we search for local rice varietals and buy a packet.
So it was recently that the wife did her half-yearly assessment and found all kinds of rice packets—bought and forgotten—including red rice from Goa, black rice from Manipur, bamboo rice (actually, the seeds of bamboo flowers) from Tamil Nadu, and an old packet of rajamudi. The result was a fine range of food: dosa batter with millets and brown rice; dosa batter with millets, brown rice and ragi powder (both these so delicious and nutty brown that even the picky seven-year-old, a white-rice fan, demanded more); black rice with spinach and carrot (see the recipe). The wife had the Manipuri black rice—which we made a few times—with dal, and I added grilled fish. As more packets are cleared out, I expect a cornucopia of good food.
Yet, we are barely scratching the surface. There are so many rice varietals from just our neck of the woods that we have never eaten. In south Karnataka, for instance, the lush land known as the Malnad (male nadu, land of rain), they grow rice varieties I have never eaten, some with evocative names, such as deva mallige (God’s jasmine) and mara batha (tree rice). There are many others, ably kept alive by farmers who care about their agrarian traditions.
Of course, all the rice types I have spoken about require more attention in the kitchen. Most need to be soaked in water, and, when cooking, require—rule of thumb—about twice or three times the quantity of water. When ready, brown, red or black rice should be fluffed carefully and, well, nurtured. But the end result is sometimes smoky, spongy and nutty. If you love something, there’s no harm putting in some labour.
Black rice with spinach and carrot
1 mug black rice, washed
1 bunch spinach, washed and chopped
2 large carrots, grated
3 tsp garlic
1 tsp sunflower or olive oil
Salt to taste
Soak the rice for at least an hour. In a pan, heat the oil and fry the garlic until soft. Add the carrots and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the spinach and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the rice and mix well. Add salt. Add water—usually twice to two-and-a-half times the amount of rice, or as specified. Cover, place a weight and cook till the water is absorbed. Open and fluff the rice. Serve with dal, fish curry or chicken/meat curry.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
The writer tweets at@samar11