“I saw this beautiful paddy, golden yellow, with a reddish awn swaying in the wind. It is that vision that attracted me to seek the seeds and grow it. Then I fell in love with the aroma and taste. Now I grow acres of it and convince others to fall in love with Mullan kazhama .”
That is Rajesh, activist-turned-organic farmer describing how he fell in love with Mullan kazhama paddy. Paddy fields, the rice and the verdant paddy landscape are indisputably among the most beautiful sights on earth.
Till a few years ago, we knew nothing about Mullan kazhama rice from Wayanad or any other scented rice variety except the ubiquitous Basmati.
Mullan kazhama is a rather unconventional scented or aromatic rice variety, neither long nor slender. Instead it is rather round with an amazing taste and aroma. Today it appears regularly at our lunch table. It is my spouse’s favourite food in illness and good health. It is delicious in payasam and a friend who made Malabar biriyani with it can’t stop raving. Its cultivation had dwindled to almost nothing but has now been revived by a handful of committed organic paddy farmers in Wayanad.
Mullan kazhama is just one example. The Indian sub continent is a treasure trove of scented rices with every region having its own favourites. With my involvement with the Save Our Rice Campaign, I began to see beyond Basmati. It all began with Gandhasaale, which grows in Wayanad , Kerala, and some hilly regions in Karnataka. I came across the slender, beautiful Jeeraga Samba after we moved to Tamil Nadu.
I began hearing paeans about Gobinda Bhog from my colleagues in West Bengal, and tasted this small-grained fragrant rice from West Bengal only last year. An organic farmer friend in Pune introduced us to Ambe Mohar, a scented rice supposedly favoured by Chatrapati Shivaji. Tulaipanji from West Bengal, Kaala jeera from Odisha, Chinnor from Madhya Pradesh, Vishnu Bhog from Chhattisgarh, Badshah bhog of Eastern India, the aromatic black rices Chakhao amubi and Chakhao poireiton of Manipur... the roll call has only just begun.
Committed and passionate
The revival of these scented rices is happening due to a small number of committed, passionate farmers and campaigns/groups working on seed and diversity conservation. They have scrounged and found lost seeds, worked to build markets where none existed, and educated the unaware about these delicious rices.
Eating and cooking these rices is far better when grown organically. The aroma is also dependant on certain factors: cool temperatures during and after flowering stage and use of farmyard manure, manual de-hulling among others.
Complete enjoyment of these rices can be derived if one is around while the rice is being cooked. The aroma wafts around the house and is almost like an appetiser. Scented rices tend to be relatively expensive, as they are generally low-yielding.
It is not only humans who are addicted to aromatic rices. Birds love them too. A farmer from Wayanad explained how the gandhasaale fields have to be protected as the birds swoop down to pluck the tender fragrant grains from the stalk.
The flip side is our ignorance about this treasure trove and our singular pursuit of Basmati to the exclusion of the scores of local varieties. This has led to a sad situation where farmers in South India or Eastern India try desperately and at great financial risk to grow Basmati to garner consumers and markets. As consumers, it is only our conscious choice of selecting these local scented rice varieties that will motivate farmers to grow these instead of pursuing varieties unsuitable to the climate and soil.
This article was originally published in The Hindu, Metro plus edition of Coimbatore on June 30, 2017