Whose rice is it anyway?
- Ancient rice varieties from different parts of Bengal are making a comeback in modern kitchens
- The Bengali fixation with rice is matched by an abundance of hyperlocal varieties
A Bengali, they say, is made of fish and rice—maachhey bhaatey Bangali. Initiated into the world of adult gastronomy with a morsel of rice, they grow up to appreciate the nuances of bhaat-ghum, a rice-induced afternoon nap. Rice is inextricably linked with the Bengali identity—culturally, gastronomically, and, above all, emotionally.
The Bengali fixation with rice is matched by the sheer diversity of hyperlocal varieties, also known as folk rice, once grown in the region. Ancient and medieval texts are strewn with references to the numerous varieties of rice grown in the region. In A Statistical Account Of Bengal published in 1875, Sir W.W. Hunter lists 10 varieties of autumn rice and 27 varieties of winter rice grown in the Sundarbans region of undivided Bengal. “One scholar mentions the presence of as many as 119 varieties of rice in the 24 Parganas alone," says Tanushree Bhowmik, a development professional and home cook who documents and showcases old recipes through her pop-up Fork Tales.
Thanks to a small but resolute band of farmers, some of these forgotten folk rice strains are not lost for good. “The state government’s support in reviving traditional rice strains in Bengal has been commendable too," says Bhowmik. And some of these heirloom folk rice varieties have caught the attention of adventurous and conscious chefs, home cook and culinary curators, who are bringing them back to the table in both traditional and modern avatars. The revival harks back to food customs derived from a deeper understanding of ingredients.
“Interestingly, each of these folk rice strains had a specific place in the Bengal nutrition and culinary map—preventive, curative, aromatic and gourmet," says food historian and consultant Pritha Sen, a pioneer in bringing artisanal, heirloom strains of rice back to the kitchen, and rediscovering their culinary and curative virtues. “In fact, Bengal at one time had over 500 varieties of rice, with nutrition quotients that also took care of 21st century’s growing lifestyle diseases like diabetes. That wisdom is lost today under the weight of hybrid, tasteless and unhealthy mass-marketed polished varieties," adds Sen.
Few urban Indians know about the iron-fortified doodhe bolta, the garibsal known in folk medicine to cure gastro-enteric infections, or the kobirajsal recommended for recuperating patients.
At her Delhi pop-up in March dedicated to rice, Bhowmik served up a 13-course meal to showcase 13 varieties of rice from across the country, including four from Bengal. One of them was the kobirajsal, which she used to make villepi, a curative gruel with roots in Ayurveda, while her dahi pakhala, yogurt fermented rice, used bahurupi. “Traditionally, the bahurupi is used in Bengal and Odisha for fermented rice because it is believed that it yields the best probiotics on fermentation. The variety is also rich in iron, which is better absorbed in fermentation," says Bhowmik.
The culinary use of rice was diverse too, often specific, and steeped in sociocultural nuances. For instance, certain varieties of aromatic atop (sundried) rice, often christened after popular appellations of Lord Krishna, would usually be used to cook ritualistic food, while some varieties of fine, fragrant rice would be reserved for celebratory meals comprising luxurious pulaos and payesh. And then there were rice varieties meant for daily consumption.
“My paternal grandmother would talk about balam, a premium rice variety brought to Kolkata from erstwhile East Bengal," says Bhowmik. Balam, described as “the staple food of the cream of Kolkata babudom" in early 20th century writing, came from Backergunge district. “I recently found out that the West Bengal agriculture department has revived it (by supporting farmers sowing it) and I am trying to source my stock," adds Bhowmik.
Iconic Bengali recipe books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like Pragyasundari Devi’s AmishO Niramish Ahaar and Bipradas Mukhopadhyay’s Pak Pranali, mention varieties used for specific dishes. For instance, in Pragyasundari’s book, the recipe for her unusual Malai Bhuni Khichuri cooked in coconut milk with aromatic spices calls for the bak tulasi rice. The quintessentially Bengali basanti pulao is made with chinisarkar rice, while the unusual Dwarkanath Phirni Pulao calls for kamini atop.
“Besides, there were varieties that were good for making muri (puffed rice), some made the best khoi (popped rice) and murki (khoi with jaggery), and yet others made for fantastic chirey (flattened rice)," says chef-consultant Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar, who recently co-curated Edible Archives at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, showcasing over 20 varieties of indigenous rice.
Ghosh Dastidar has studied, researched and experimented with rice for several years. She makes sushi with the fragrant and glutinous daat shaal from southern Bengal, Asian-style congee with kataribhog and radha tilak, and a distinctly southern raw mango rice with the hetumari, a variety of long-grained red rice originally from the Krishnanagar region.
At Mustard, a French-Bengali eatery with outposts in Goa and Mumbai, Sen uses the radhuni pagol to make jao bhaat, a congee-like dish served with accompaniments like stuffed ash gourd and poppy seed fritters. “The radhuni pagol is one of the most aromatic strains of rice from Bengal," says Sen. The rice gets its quirky name from the bewitching aroma that could, it is safe to say, drive the cook crazy.
Of course, when it comes to fragrant rice from Bengal, the short-grained, glutinous gobindobhog has been among the first to make it to the country’s gourmet map. Chef Manu Chandra, director, Olive Bar & Kitchen Pvt. Ltd, uses it to make lobster risottos spiked with chilli and mustard oil, tuna poke bowls and soft-shell crab fried rice.
In Kolkata, food blogger and culinary consultant Sayantani Mahapatra curated a pop-up, Chalchitra, in collaboration with Amar Khamar, a social enterprise committed to digitally connecting small-scale women farmers with urban consumers, that showcased a few varieties from the region. Their website also offers a selection of different local rice for sale. The home-style rustic meal at the pop-up was cooked by three women farmers from the Sunderbans, along with Mahapatra.
Mahapatra picked the fragrant, slightly glutinous chine kamini for her version of the khud ghanta—a thick gruel traditionally made with khud, or broken rice. She topped it with chilli oil and fried peanuts to give the quintessentially rural dish a more sophisticated congee-like finish. The mains—everything from parshe (grey mullet) wrapped in bottle gourd leaves, crab cooked with potatoes and poi (Malabar spinach) to rich curry with goat meat from the Sundarbans—were served with the aromatic kanakchur rice, the stout-grained, slightly nutty hogla, said to be especially beneficial for those with high blood pressure, and the dhenki-chhata (unpolished) rani akando. “The idea was to give diners a chance to pair traditional dishes with different kinds of rice to encourage a more diverse rice-eating culture," says Mahapatra.
For dessert, there was kalabhaat’er payesh—purple-tinged, with a blackcurrant-like aftertaste. The antioxidant-rich kalabhaat has, in fact, gained some popularity in the last couple of years. At the Ekdalia Rd restaurant in Kolkata, owner Surojit Rout, who also steers the kitchen, uses it to make Kadaknath Chicken and hand-rolled black rice fettuccine.
At The Park Kolkata, executive chef Sharad Dewan uses the kalabhaat to make everything from sushi and sweet porridge to seafood-loaded paella. But one of his most inspired creations is the hilsa risotto served with kasundi (mustard) ice cream that uses another indigenous rice variety from the north and south Dinajpur areas—tulaipanji. Incidentally, the tulaipanji, which received its Geographical Indication, or GI, tag in 2017, also made an appearance at the London Olympics Food Festival in 2012.
“Once fairly common among the Bengali middle class, it is remarkably soft and aromatic," says Ghosh Dastidar. At the Edible Archives, Ghosh Dastidar paired the tulaipanji with everything from eggs marinated in Korean-style brine to Mopla-style jackfruit curry and more. Talk about breaking boundaries.