My first sight of black rice was a few years back during a seed festival organized by the Save Our Rice Campaign. I was fascinated by the purple black grain glistening in my palm. I did not buy it then nor did I attempt to cook it. That happened a few years later. By then I had become involved intensively in the Rice Campaign and passionate about traditional rices. We had taken to using 10-12 varieties of rice a year. Finally we attempted a sweet payasam with Burma black rice, which I purchased from a seed festival organized by Sahaja Samruddha. When cooked the rice became more purple than black, sticky, and tasted heavenly with just the addition of jaggery. We added a bit of ghee just for the fragrance and it was just out of this world!
When we talk to friends about our passion for traditional rices, the stock responses we get from them range from, isn’t rice fattening, doesn’t it cause diabetes to I have completely gone off rice and so on. All the ills of modern day diets are attributed to rice and we think that by simply eliminating rice from our menu we will be perfectly fine. I think this is an overreaction to the modern day scourge of polished white rice which is now the only thing recognized as “rice”. Rice has also become a reviled water guzzler, as the biggest source of climate change causing methane emissions. But the story is not this black and white!
The white polished rice that we eat today is far from the real nutritious grain which feeds half the population of the world. It has been completely de-natured by modern day processing, varieties selected only for yield and convenience have replaced the 1000s of native cultivars, which have many properties in terms of crop resilience and superior nutritive value. These land races have evolved through farmer selection over hundreds or thousands of years. In the last few decades we have replaced most of them with a small selection of improved varieties chosen mainly for yield and responsiveness to chemical inputs. The traditional red rices and black rices that were grown had almost disappeared from our paddy fields.
However, in the recent past there has been some positive change. With increased uptake of organic farming these rice varieties are experiencing a revival, among farmers and consumers. Many people are re-adopting red rices in their diets and in their farms. However, black rices are still an unknown commodity except a couple of popular ones.
The first stories of black rice emerged out of imperial China where it was forbidden for common people to have it, only royalty were allowed to eat it. Farmers grew it for the emperor and were forbidden from eating it themselves. Many black rices have their origin in South East Asia, where it is still very popular. Recent research has revealed that black rices have many nutritional, medicinal properties and are aromatic.
It is said that all black rices originated from China or Japan ( that is contested) around 10,000 years ago. They are found with long grain and short grain, with the distinctive purple-black colour and with amylopectin ( that makes it sticky when cooked) and high levels of anthocyanin. The fibre rich black rice contains more Vitamins B and E, niacin, calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc than white rice and has anthocyanins that act as detoxifying agents. Black rice contains more anthocyanins than many dark fruits, has anti-inflammatory properties, has antioxidants, and is rich in fibre, iron and other minerals and are mostly aromatic. “The rice arrests proliferation of cancerous cells, by inducing death of cancerous cells (apoptosis). It has anti-inflammatory properties and has anti-angiogenesic effects (inhibition of the formation of new blood vessels which encourages tumour growth),”1 according to research by a Chinese cancer specialist. It is also supposed to have anti- carcinogenic properties and its bran can soothe allergies.
What is interesting about this rice is that almost all of these are also aromatic. If these paddy varieties are grown with chemicals (fertilizers or pesticides), they tend to lose their aroma. The aroma also varies according to the soil where it is grown. Of these black rices very few have a black core, they have black bran with a white core. Some of the Chinese black rices have black core as well.
Sticky rice is popular in South East Asia and not surprisingly many black varieties have their origin there, for example Burma black as the name suggests is from Myanmar and Black jasmine rice is from Thailand. Many varieties have their origin in Mainland China.
In India we have numerous black rices growing in different parts of the country. It is most extensively grown in the north east where it is extremely popular and eaten extensively. The sweet made from black rice is called Chak- hao ( meaning tasty rice) and is popularly had during feasts.
The North Eastern state of Manipur is particularly famous for black rices. According to Manipuri farmer Devakanta , who is an award winning seed conserver, farmers grow about 20 varieties out of which Chakhao Poireiton is supposed to be the best. Devakanta is motivating about 200 organic rice farmers in Manipur to grow black rice. It is considered to be good for people suffering from viral fever, chikangunea, dengue etc.Manipur has almost 10% of its paddy area under black rice; however poor yields and consumer ignorance about the rice are a deterrent for increase under area of black rice.
According to Soumik Banerjee associated with the Save Our Rice Campaign, “Black rice is already being grown by a number of farmer groups in West Bengal, Odisha and Karnataka. The most popular varieties are Kala Bhat and Burma Black . The farmers are able to get Rs 100-120 per kg for bulk orders and upto Rs 200 per kg for small quantities. Biswa Banga of Govt of West Bengal is retailing black rice at Rs 300 per kg through its outlets.” He added that in Jharkahnd they are growing Kalabhat and Chak-hao since the last two years.
Dr Anupam Paul who manages the Agriculture Training Centre in Fulia and is an enthusiastic rice breeder says, “We grow Burma black, Chak-hao and Kala Bhat in our centre. People are slowly understanding the importance of black rice and demand is increasing. The West Bengal government is coming out with a small publication about black rice''. Dr. Paul added that there is tremendous possibility for growing black rice in the Southern rice growing states as this rice is highly adaptable.
In terms of yield it is not too bad and the good prices makes it remunerative for the farmers. But marketing black rice in large quantities is a problem. In Bardhaman District of West Bengal, Kala Bhat under conventional transplant (under organic conditions) has shown yields upto 3.4 MT/ha. Handishala a black rice variety grown in Bargad district of Odisha yields 2.9 MT/ha under conventional transplant ( under organic conditions). In 2015 Kala Bhat grown on a small plot of 20 sqm under SRI with organic inputs in Sundarpahari, Godda, Jharkhand showed a mean yield of 472 g per sqm.
In the south of India Karuppu kavuni , a medium grain black rice, possibly having originated in Indonesia or Malaysia is extensively used for making a rice based sweet (along with jaggery) called Chakkarapongal . The glycemic index of the rice is supposed to be so low that even in a sweet dish it does not cause a sugar spike.
Now organic retailers carry black jasmine rice , Burma black rice, Karuppu Kauni and other local black rices. Organic markets/shops are seeing increasing demand for these rices even though in the open market there is low awareness about these rices and only polished white rices reign.
I have always believed that agro- biodiversity can be conserved and promoted only if we eat the agro-diversity. Interest from people to consume these grains is what will motivate farmers to conserve these rare grains, multiply and grow these regularly. So the key is to eat our way into agro-biodiversity! Enjoy the beauty and taste of black rice.
Try this delicious black rice payasam recipe: Cook one cup of black rice and to the almost cooked rice add ¾ or 1 cup of jaggery and let it simmer on the stove while stirring. When the rice is cooked and the rice and jaggery is mixed add powdered cardamom, roasted cashew nuts and raisins for taste and as a final touch add a spoon of ghee. Stir it and let it simmer for a while and enjoy the purple , black, healthy , delicious dessert.