Eating our way to rice-diversity

By Sreedevi Lekshmikutty on 14th May, 2019

Recently, studies have established that the causative link to diabetes is with “polished white rice” not any rice. It is increasingly being established that unpolished red and brown rice do not cause diabetes.

Rice is my soul food, what I long for when I am hungry and what I miss when I don’t get it. Belonging to the post-green revolution generation, white rice came into our family pretty early despite living in the land of red rice, Kerala.

When we were young, my great grandmother who cultivated our ancestral paddy lands used to send us unpolished parboiled red rice. When she became bedridden the lands were left fallow, eventually sold, and the money used to buy a then much-coveted refrigerator, prompting my mother to say, “we sold our rice-growing lands to buy an ice-box to store stale-cooked rice!”

I lived in different cities in India and abroad and bought polished white rice. I was concerned about the quality and price, beyond that I didn’t think it mattered. Moving to Mumbai, I found that the south Indian stores provided red rice; sadly, this was red only in name and appearance. The colour washed off like from a bad fabric!

Paddy Problems

It was at this juncture, as part of my work with agriculture and food issues, I got involved with the ‘Save Our Rice’ campaign. It was at this time that the spread of diabetes in India, particularly in the south, began to be associated with the consumption of rice.

Recently, studies have established that the causative link to diabetes is with “polished white rice” not any rice. It is increasingly being established that unpolished red and brown rice do not cause diabetes. In fact, red rice is known to have many beneficial health effects and is also nutritionally superior.

Watching and sharing the dilemma of the farmers, I realised that we as consumers have a role in reviving rice.

To save agro-biodiversity, we have to eat diverse foods, thereby promoting their cultivation and propagation -that is exactly how rice consumers will become rice savers!

Whither Rice-diversity

We, in India, are rich in rice heritage and had till about 40 years back over 1,10,000 varieties of rice; now we are down to about 6,000 varieties, according to Dr Debal Deb, one of the foremost rice savers in India.

Why do we need this diversity? We need it to keep the robustness of the crop and diversity aids the evolution of stronger and more adaptable varieties.

 And how do we protect this diversity? Simply by growing and eating. The more varieties of rice we all eat, greater the range of varieties farmers will grow season after season.

Rice Delights

During the last few years I have eaten various kinds of red rice - raw and par boiled with full bran or partly removed, the fragrant ‘Gandhakasala’ from Wayanad, the smell of which tempted my aged and ill father to eat rice after many days, ‘Mullankazhama’ - a lovely flower-like rice which makes delicious ‘payasam’ and the small grained brown rice called ‘Komal’, cultivated by Susheel an organic farmer and a good friend.

I have also come across other rice varieties like the ‘Rajamudi’ rice used by the Wadiyars of Mysore, the fascinating variety named ‘Thavalakannan’ (literally means frog’s eyes) which is favoured by temples in Kerala for preparing beaten rice flakes and ‘Njavara’ rice that is recommended for diabetics. There are rice varieties that are good for lactating women and numerous rices with medicinal properties as well.

Why don’t we unearth some of the indigenous rices we have and their uses and find innovative ways to cook them for our families?  In Karnataka, farmers are conserving around 140 varieties of rice, in Tamil Nadu, around 40 varieties are distributed every year through a seed mela, groups in Wayanad are trying to conserve traditional varieties used by the tribals, even in Thane, Mumbai, over a hundred varieties of rice are being conserved.


‘Natabara Sarangi’, a rice saver in Orissa, conserves 310 varieties. But, we need more rice savers who relish traditional rice, to conserve the most valuable grain known to mankind.

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express, edition of Thiruvananthapuram on 04th July 2012