India’s now-eased lockdown has forced even the strongest opponent of tech billionaires to try and source some groceries online. One of the boons of this reliance on ecommerce for Malayalis is the nationwide availability of Matta rice from the fields of Palakkad. Those who live in localities (outside Kerala) that don’t have many Malayali residents would find it next to impossible to get this variety at the local grocery store.
The change in diet from the polished white rice to this fine red variety has proven beneficial to this writer in many ways. Besides the obvious nutritional benefits that come with Matta rice, there’s the compatibility of Kerala and particularly Palakkad cuisine with this variety. Erishery, sambar and any kind of upperi goes great with this variety, just as north Indian delicacies taste better with Basmati rice.
Tastes and smells also have the ability to transport a person mentally to another place or to a past that is filled with real and imaginary memories.
Some childhood memories tend to be particularly vivid, like the power of lightning to temporarily brighten a pitch-dark village night or the sight of ducks descending on a paddy field to eat insects and weeds. Then there are memories of our elders that have been passed down to us such as the reading of the Ramayana in oil-lamp light during the Karkada month. Some memories have been deeply implanted into our consciousness by literature. It’s hard not to feel nostalgia for the train that races “toward the mountain pass like a serpent with a flaming jewel on its forehead,” as the great O V Vijayan put it.
Preserving indigenous varieties
Ironically the very same tech giants that help Malayalis get indigenous varieties of grains in places that are thousands of kilometres from Kerala are also part of the global system that looks to replace indigenous varieties of rice with hybrids.
Indigenous rice varieties such as Black Njawara, Golden Njawara and Pokkali are full of vital nutrients that are missing in popular varieties being grown by the farmers in Kerala. A study conducted by researchers from the Kerala Agricultural University in 2018 revealed that Pokkali rice was among the best varieties when it came to fibre and protein content. It is also a rich source of antioxidants and contains minerals, including iron, boron and sulphur. The study also revealed that Pokkali had the lowest carbohydrate content of the varieties that were tested.
Old timers in Kerala would frown on those who make Kozhikode Biryani with Basmati instead of Jeerakasala, also known as Wayanadan Kaima. Jeerakasala, a variety that is indigenous to Wayanad as its alternative name suggests, is also rich in nutrients and has an unmistakable fragrance.
Hybrid varieties of paddy made their way to Kerala from the 1960s. They have affected both yields and the overall health of the population.
Even after they started to grow hybrid varieties of rice, for a long time farmers in Palakkad would only personally consume two varieties of Matta - Thavalakannan (literally frog’s eyes) and Chemban. They were well aware of the nutritional benefits, something that was passed down through the generations.
One of the leading proponents for protecting and preserving India’s traditional agricultural knowledge has been Dr Vandana Shiva. She has called for India to articulate its own biodiversity to protect both the ecosystem and the knowledge system.
Rice has been cultivated for thousands of years in Kerala, but there has been an enormous decline in the traditional rice-growing areas of the state such as Palakkad and Alappuzha since the 1960s. The main reasons for this decline, according to a 2016 study by H Athira and N K Kumar, are biotic stress caused by diseases and weeds, land degradation, uneven rainfall, groundwater depletion, low levels of productivity, climate change, and chemical pollution. Not all of these factors are under the control of farmers, but they are left with a clear choice: adopt high-yielding varieties, most of which are hybrids, or use traditional ones that are suitable for marginal lands. It’s the latter that will benefit public health and also help preserve something that is an integral part of our heritage.
If the global corporations have their way, we may end up losing the very varieties of rice that link us with our ancestors and our culture. There has never been a more opportune moment for Kerala to reassess its agricultural priorities.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island)