At Kochi Muziris Biennale, a food project showcases indigenous varieties of rice from across India, presented in unique ways

It was a small gathering of people that got together for a tasting of what was being called the curtain-raiser to The Edible Archives, at the Bengaluru Oota Company. This was to be a food project at the ongoing Kochi Muziris Biennale, focusing the spotlight on indigenous rice varieties that have, by and large, been lost with time and the proliferation of hybrid, quicker-yielding varieties that drove the Green Revolution decades ago. Curated by Chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar, with her Bengali roots and cooking experience in Thai, Japanese and Italian, as well as Prima Kurien, author, consultant and caterer, who has worked on popularising traditional Malayali cuisine for close to two decades now, The Edible Archives wants to raise awareness on the several heirloom varieties of rice, that are but a memory, if at all. And the Biennale has been a wonderful space to kick-start this initiative.

As we sat down on the wooden benches set against the wall at the popular Bengaluru Oota Company, the ambience and the aromas from the kitchen took me back to my childhood. And rightly so says Shalini Krishan, Consulting Editor with Speaking Tiger, who is also documenting the food culture and knowledge collected and produced by this project. “You are an archive of the sensations you have had, of the tastes and all the flavours you have experienced. But gaining access to these experiences is not really possible because all you are left with is a memory of that dish, which is also constantly mutating and changing. We started this project with that idea,” explains Krishan of the origin of the project.

Prima Kurien

Prima Kurien (L) with Chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar. Image courtesy: The Edible Archives

How is this showcase of indigenous and lesser-known rice varieties being done? For starters, The Edible Archives team have travelled across the country to source them and brought back, not just the grains, but the traditional knowledge that goes with it – from its cultural significance, to cooking techniques, to accompaniments and the way of life it encompasses. With the intention of collecting between 15-25 varieties during the course of this project, the team also invites chefs to bring in their own cuisines, personal archives and refigure these collected grains into a rice bowl that is served up to visitors at the Biennale. The idea is that each meal becomes an entry into the individual edible archives of the people eating it.

With this by way of introduction, we were served our rice bowls created by Chef Anumitra – and were told to partake with our fingers. The memory behind it? As a child, she once accompanied her uncle to Bishnupur,  six km from Kolkata. She was promised that they would fish on the way and they did just that – as a result of which they reached their destination later than expected. They then ate with the workers that her uncle was scheduled to meet and partook of their simple meal – which was a lot of rice, with some robust chutney on the side, a local green and the fish that the uncle-niece duo had caught. The meal was cooked right there. “For the people of the region, meals were made of what was easily available – and so if there was fish, there would be different ones that may be caught at the moment. Flavours brought out had to be robust for lack of other accompaniments to go with the rice”, explains Dastidar.

At the the Edible Archives stall

At the Edible Archives stall. Image courtesy: The Edible Archives

Translating this memory into our bowls, we each had some rice, mixed with a pungent garlic-chili-kalonji-mustard oil chutney, accompanied with fish – some seer, some bangda and others, marinated in raw turmeric and topped with a crumbed quail egg yolk! While Seeraga Champa is relatively common rice across South India, it is usually used in biriyanis and pulaos, because these mild slow-cooked dishes showcase its flavour. In this meal though, it was paired in a highly unusual way with pungent elements giving it a completely different flavour profile from the traditional usage.

“We haven't assumed any lofty purpose,” says Prima Kurien. “We are trying to break stereotypes about Indian food - both by reminding people of the vastness of the country's culinary heritage, and creating a space for chefs from different parts of India to experiment with rice varieties that have otherwise rarely left their local contexts. Of course, we tell the stories behind the rice or the dishes both in person and on our various social media accounts”.

Seeraga Champa rice, with a pungent garlic-chilli-kalonji-mustard oil chutney, with fish and crumbed quail egg yolk, along with Bangda. Image courtesy: Prudhvi Mita

Seeraga Champa rice, with a pungent garlic-chilli-kalonji-mustard oil chutney, with fish and crumbed quail egg yolk, along with Bangda. Image courtesy: Prudhvi Mita

And by a cursory glance at their social media, it’s apparent that the interest in such an initiative and in trying out the meals is high. “The whole idea behind the showcase of rice struck a chord with me,” says Neel Sharma, a Business Development and Marketing Communication Professional, who visited the Kochi Biennale specifically to eat at The Edible Archives. “We usually talk about the accompaniments to rice – the dals, meat, vegetables while the rice is side-lined. For someone like me – who knew just two types of rice growing, this was an eye-opener. I spent a few hours with Chef Anumitra, watching and listening to her interact with diners – peppering each of her interactions with information on the work done, as well as, anecdotes associated with each of the rice varieties being served. I ate the Ratna Chudi Rice from Karnataka, served with Pork and Raja Mirchi with some Banana Flower Cutlets and Kasundi. Eating in earthenware by hand and those heart-warming stories is an experience I will remember”.

For Priya Bala, a senior journalist, restaurant critic and author with a culinary specialty in Sri Lankan cuisine, and a guest chef at The Edible Archives, it was about presenting a simple home-style Srilankan meal. “Anumitra suggests the rice to go with each rice bowl combination and we used Ratna Chudi, for instance, for a bowl that comprised masur dal, sardines, beetroot, raw banana and pickled carrot and raw papaya”.

Chef Anumitra with Chantal Figureoa 825

Chef Anumitra with Chantal Figureoa. Image courtesy: The Edible Archives

Another meal was created similarly with Chantal Figureoa, who used Guatemalan chilies and pumpkin seeds, which are very different from their Indian counterparts, to prepare Chicken Pepian, a pre-colonial Mayan dish in which all the ingredients are charred and blended into a gravy. The chicken is marinated in beer overnight and cooked with the gravy so the whole dish is smoky and flavourful. Anumitra paired it with Chini Atap from Bengal, a white, slightly sweet rice that complemented the smokiness of the Pepian.

One of the rarest rice The Edible Archives has sourced is the Hetumari from Krishnanagore in Bengal. It's a pinkish rice, high on taste and nutritive values. It was grown for a small royal family. Recently some farmers acquired some seeds and began growing it. Anumitra arranged for 50 kilos to be sent to Kochi. Various such rice and meals made with them will be available at the Biennale till it closes on 29 March. After which Anumitra and Shalini will continue to research the biodiversity of rice as well as the myriad food cultures built around it, and present it via various platforms, some culinary, some more verbal/written and through social media (Facebook, Instagram) as well.

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Updated Date: Feb 12, 2019 10:16:08 IST

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