Food for Thought – Are We Losing Out On Our indigenous varieties of Grains and Vegetables?

Unmilled to milled rice, from right to left, b...

A casual chat with an octogenarian grand mother about the local cuisine revealed many surprising facts. Names of rice, vegetables, herbs kept popping out and I have not heard of many. I understood it was a part of the staple food they had in the olden days. Her knowledge about greens were amazing. She walked around the backyard and could pick up leaves and name them also. In addition there were some quick recipes on it. It kept me pondering if we ever thought about some of our lost ingredients? It is time to hit the indigenous route and rediscover the specialty of maapilai samba, Kudhiraivaali, varagu and more. Did you know there’s a rice variety in Tamilnadu called ‘Maapilai samba’ that was fed to bridegrooms before the wedding? Thooyamalli, another traditional rice variety, gets its name from its striking resemblance to jasmine buds, while seeraga samba — which looks like the spice it’s named after — is as fragrant as its distant cousin the Basmati, grown in the foothills of the Himalayas. Out of the ones listed, I could find Seeraga samba with few rice vendors in Chennai. Read on and do share your opinion …

So how come none of these make their way to our pressure cookers? Neither have I heard of these before, nor do local stores stock beyond the regular two or three varieties of rice. “Rice has now become synonymous with ponni,” says Madhusoodhanan K, co-founder of Dhanyam organic superstore. “Good quality rice is expected to have small, thin and white grains. It’s really unfortunate, because the thicker varieties aren’t just more nutritious, they also have more flavour.”

From an estimated four lakh rice varieties in the Vedic times to the few readily available now, a wealth — in terms of taste, nutrients brought to the table, genetic stocks that could combat different climatic conditions and pests — has been lost across India.

“There were so many strains of rice just in the South, people in their 80s can still tell you about it,” says Pradeep Chakravarthy, historian and author. “There is mention of moongil arisi in literature, while kai kutral arisi was regularly eaten. But now we seem to prefer brown rice only in Spanish and Italian cuisines.”

The erosion is, however, not limited to just rice.  And that brings us to the big question — why have foodstuffs that were, until a couple of generations ago, commonly seen on the daily menu become so rare? “The economies of scale have tilted,” says Madhusoodhanan. “Our system is better geared towards processing 100 tons of one variety of rice, rather than one ton each of 100 varieties”.

 “Lifestyles too have changed,” says Chandra Padmanabhan, cookbook writer. “One generation ago, my mother-in-law spent the whole day in the kitchen, and her morning brunch featured a spread with sambhar, two rasams, two kootus, a thogaiyal and kosumalli. But now with menus shrinking, moru rasam, vepampoo rasam and kandanthipilli rasam have become rarities.” And in the demand-supply tug-of-war, once common ingredients have fallen out of the regular supply chain, and finding something like kandanthippili today is a challenge.

Chef Jacob, food-historian, spice-collector and promoter of South Indian cooking says that perandai thogaiyal, which was a popular dish, especially since it improved one’s appetite, is hardly eaten now. “Similarly, mudaku aruthan keerai rasam was consumed regularly; it helps fight against stroke and paralysis. You see, when an ingredient goes off the table, we’re not just losing out on variety, but also their inherent medicinal properties,” he says.  Jackfruit seeds are another example. They were commonly used in sambhar and kootu, and even ground and added to dosa batter, says Chandra.

But with apartment culture, trees vanished, and these seeds are not available commercially. “When I write recipes, I keep in mind that people might not have access to some ingredients. For instance, maratti mogu, used in bisi bela baath is tough to source. In the recipe, I put it down as optional, but added a photograph, so that if people found it, they could use it.”

Interestingly, this shift in food habits is not limited to urban areas. “Ponaanganni keerai has become rare, even in rural areas,” says Chef Jacob.“Similarly, pannan kizhangu and siru kizhangu are rarely used.” Chandra adds that ragi muddhay — ragi flour cooked like a halwa — was eaten in the villages of Karnataka, along with gravy with lots of vegetables. “Now they too have abandoned these recipes, opting to follow urban menus.”

Ragi though, everyone agrees, is seeing a bit of a revival thanks to being diabetes-friendly. Also ragi is hardy and grows organically.If only the other varieties of rice became fashionable once again and re-appeared on the table.

Rice has now become synonymous with ponni. It’s really unfortunate, because the thicker varieties aren’t just more nutritious, they also have more flavor.

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Posted on August 11, 2012, in Editors Corner and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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