You may have noticed my posts about Indian heritage rice varieties on Instagram. I come from traditions, practices and a cuisine that is deeply rooted in and around rice. I’m now a part of the Shalikuta Project, as a natural progression of that. This project, a brainchild of Deepa Reddy looks into heritage varieties of Indian rices. This post is an introduction to The Shalikuta Project and all it hopes to be.
For Deepa Reddy, Shalikuta started out with a plate of Poongar rice and a dream of synthesis of rice. Poongar is an unpolished Tamil Nadu red rice with supposed health benefits, particularly for women. We have so many similar varieties of native Indian rice. There is a lot of information available about our heritage grains, including that supplied by e-commerce vendors who sell them. While much of the information is genuine, a lot of it is embellishment for the sake of marketing.
Looking into the variety of Indian rice raised two problems. The first of these was just the sheer biodiversity of our native landraces. There are hundreds of native, indigenous varieties of rice grown across India. Most are known locally in the regions where they are grown, but the rest of us know very little about them. Each grain of these rices has its own unique nutraceutical profile. Yet they overlooked and perhaps even threatened by the more commonly cooked “white” high-yielding hybrid rice varieties.
As we rediscover our heritage landraces, we are faced with the unfortunate reality that we have already lost a good number of them. Some have totally disappeared while some live only in stories and memories. Some rices like Kuthiraivaal Samba, Kunkuma Banthulu, Erra Mallelu (has the fragrance of jasmine) and Kaki Rekkalu (a rice black as the crows’ wings) are possibly still grown by tribal subsistence farmers.
Regional heritage rice varieties still lend plenty of character to the local cuisines. Gobindo Bhog, Karuppu Kavuni, Garudan Samba, Kala Namak, Indrayani, Khushboi, Swasthikasale, Rose Matta, Bora Saul are a few examples of this. They are an exciting discovery of fragrance, texture, hope and culinary possibility. The medicinal knowledge and culinary innovation around them is largely unknown to many of us.
The second problem was trying to understand how much of the available knowledge about these heritage rice varieties was authentic and accurate. There is lack of good information, overabundance of poor and unverified information. A lot of it is overly technical and specialized, tends to be unorganised, dispersed, and piecemeal.
Various factors have been responsible for lack of knowledge or disappearance of our heritage rices. The Green Revolution movement of the 1960s, for example, led to research focus on high-yielding hybrid varieties. This, the need for low cost rice and other factors meant that previously seasonally grown and consumed heritage rice varieties were no longer within our reach in every way. Many farmers stopped growing them, favouring newer high yielding and economically more viable rice varieties.
Unfortunately, we also lost the stories and metaphors, the heritage and traditions, the knowledge of benefits and recipes tied up in these heritage rices. We are losing pliability in our search for standardization, predictability, and conformity. Today, we have barely 2000 landraces where we once had about 60, 000!
So Shalikuta began as an ethnobotanical dream. One of compiling a pharmacopoeia of Indian heritage rices–a synthesizing dictionary of rices, their best known nutraceutical profiles, stories and recipes, customs and ceremonies tied to them, and more. We want to restore value to our heritage rices, and rediscover ways of thinking, speaking, feeling, cooking and healing with these in our kitchens. Shalikuta is the place we see this happening, growing with the knowledge we gain, as a continued effort and a living repository.
We have learned this past year that this is a considerable challenge. The narrow scope of our daily lives and capacities make it a task to relate to and cultivate an appreciation for our vast biodiversity. Nonetheless, the project continues to persist.
What does Shalikuta mean?
Sali rices of Ayurvedic texts were varieties transplanted during the July-November season. We, however, use the term somewhat broadly to refer to “heaps” of rice. Śālikūṭa (शालिकूट):—[=śāli-kūṭa] [from śāli] n. a heap of rice. The term also alludes to granaries. Thus Shalikuta is a literal granary of Indian heritage rices, which we collect to use and work with. It is also a metaphorical storehouse of knowledge.
Who are we?
We are a group of writers, bloggers, researchers, home-cooks, photographers, and entrepreneurs. We have a common love of our diverse regional Indian cuisines, cooking practices and a shared fascination for rice. We want to tell stories of Indian heritage rice landraces, and their little-known or appreciated medicinal and nutritional properties. We have therefore gathered to rediscover our own rice traditions, develop and share a deeper appreciation of Indian heritage landraces and their invaluable role in good health and well-being. Currently, we represent 6 Indian states: Assam, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Odisha, and Tamil Nadu.We are :
- Deepa Reddy, Paticheri @paticheri
- Aparna Balasubramanian, My Diverse Kitchen @aparna.balasubramanian
- Pratiba Bhat, Food for Joy @pratibabhat
- Sheetal Bhatt, The Route to Roots @theroutetoroots
- Sweta Biswal, Oriya Rasoi @swetabiswal
- Vijhay Ganesh @maiyam_pastfood
- Priya Raghunathan @priya.raghunathan
- Sayantani Mahapatra A Homemaker’s Diary @ahomemakersdiary
- Anjali Ganapathy @pigout_coorgkitchen
- Radhika Penagonda, Just Homemade @justhomemade (with original collective until January 2021)
- Pari Hazarika @saltsugarandsmoke (with original collective until March 2020)
What do we aim to do?
- Identify Indian heritage rice varieties with known medicinal and nutritional properties.
- Create a living archive of this knowledge.
Of special interest is :
-How farmers grow, harvest, store and process rice in ways thought to enhance their natural medicinal/nutritional properties;
-Folk insights about regional rices and their value in Indian diets or the treatment of specific ailments;
-How rices must be prepared or served to best benefit those consuming them. We therefore seek to document heritage rice properties from four distinct perspectives: growing, milling/processing, cooking, and healing.
- There is much beauty in rice itself. The huge diversity of color, aroma, texture, size, etc is endlessly fascinating, and an invitation to much local creativity in cookery. We hope to capture both nutritive and aesthetic dimensions of rice varieties, and build a storehouse of the existing cultural knowledge about them.
Why rice, why this project?
- Rice is one of most important cereals in civilization. Diets, communities, and entire lifeways are built around rice production and consumption in the different regions of India. Rice is laden with cultural and religious symbolisms.
- Rice landraces are a crucial part of India’s ecological biodiversity. Cultivated rice in India has over centuries since its domestication in the subcontinent, evolved into an astonishing array of over 60,000 landraces, adapted to diverse soil and climactic conditions. As mentioned earlier, the Green revolution created a greater preference for “high yielding varieties” (HYVs). This has threatened folk rice varieties, many with significant medicinal, nutritional, and cultural value. Concerted documentation with conservation initiatives are the only viable ways to prevent them from disappearing altogether. An improved awareness of our indigenous biodiversity, a better appreciation of the value of rice in the Indian diet, and a greater demand for local rice varieties is important to ensure that our small farmers feel growing heritage rices is an economically sustainable option.
- Many Indian organizations and associations are doing the critical work of conservation farming, seed banking, documentation, etc. There is wide discussion of the medicinal and nutritive properties of specific rices, but the data isn’t comprehensively compiled. It isn’t fully accessible to people seeking to use these rices as part of their daily diets. We, at Shalikuta, seek to fill this gap and complement conservation efforts by interesting, and aesthetically appealing stories about the value of rice that are accessible to all.
Rice has, in recent years, been given a reputation as a straightforward “carb” unfit for the fitness-conscious or insulin dependent. Looking at rice as a mere starch undermines and belittles local and indigenous medical understandings of rices. The diversity and properties of rice are finer-grained, deeply contextual, and complex. A storehouse of such knowledge should enable Indians make more informed and discerning choices about the rice they eat.
Why does this matter?
Our indigenous knowledge systems need to be more meticulously investigated and recorded so that:
- We develop a far deeper appreciation for, and a relationship with this most critical staple grain of Indian diets. We remain more connected to the sources of our food, and are more attuned to how they are cultivated;
- We arm ourselves against the threat of biopiracy and assert our collective rights to our heritage, indigenous knowledge, and innovation;
- We create a baseline of knowledge for others to research further, verify, validate, and build upon;
- We ensure that farmers have viable economic reasons to grow lesser-known indigenous rice varieties by helping to create a demand for these;
- We enable Indians to make more conscious, informed, responsible, and discerning choices about rices for healthier diets rooted in local supply and knowledge;
- In times of rapidly accelerating climate-change, we teach ourselves resilience and adaptability: how to cook with varying staples, season-to-season and year-to-year, eating nutritionally balanced diets with curative properties.
Where will you build your pharmacopoeia?
We don’t have a definite answer to this one yet. We might create an online database, or write a series of pamphlets, or self-publish a book. Stay in touch with us, follow our work and know more as we know more.
Who is funding Shalikuta?
At the moment, Shalikuta is entirely volunteer-based and self-funded.
Do you have a website?
Not yet. We each have our own food blogs, are slowly reflecting a deeper engagement with the rices we are discovering on journeys and interactions with farmers in our respective states. We are on Instagram: @shalikuta. Do follow us there for glimpses and updates on our research, learnings and challenges. That’s it for now.