“Pongal used to be celebrated with freshly harvested, hand-pound rice,” says Ashokan. “I would say iluppai poo samba is the best rice to make pongal, with its soft texture and faint aroma,” he adds. An organic farmer committed to growing traditional rice varieties, Ashokan know what he is talking about. He adds he has always been partial to poongar red rice and iluppai poo samba white rice, both of which he grows on his land.
The key lies in knowing how to use each variety, says Ashokan. “We take care of the particular needs of each; be it duration of crop, water requirement, photo sensitivity, seasons etc. Similarly, we also need to be aware of cooking times, methods and flavour profiles of different types of traditional rice. Once we figure that out, it is easy to cook delicious dishes.”
Balaji and Muthu Kumar, two other organic paddy farmers, say they prefer kichadi samba white rice for pongal, while farmer Radha, who also works with organic farming guru Sundararaman, says she can turn out a pongal with any traditional variety. But, she adds, she is always extra happy if that was karuppu kavuni black rice. “Not everyone may agree, as karuppu kavuni retains a chewy texture even after cooking. It resembles the aravana payasam more than pongal, but I still love it,” she says.
There are thousands of farmers like Radha, Balaji, Muthu Kumar and Ashokan who grow, conserve and promote traditional rice varieties season after season.
Two people who have been key to bringing tens of thousands of farmers in Tamil Nadu into the fold of organic traditional paddy cultivation are the late G Nammalvar and KR Jayaraman, who passed away last month.
Jayaraman of Adhirangam’s now-famous Nel Thiruvizha festival created a wave of seed revival and an army of seed saviours in Tamil Nadu.
The work carried out by these seed warriors can yield success only if people adopt these varieties of traditional rice in their diet. And what better time to do that than during the pongal festival, which celebrates the samba harvest with delicious sakkarai pongal and ven pongal. The freshly-harvested, hand-pound rice strengthens the connection with farmers and farming.
There is also increasing anecdotal evidence that these traditional varieties are capable of withstanding climate vagaries better and have unique nutritive and healthful properties. Therefore, conserving traditional rice varieties is also becoming a survival imperative.
(Clockwise from left) karuppu kavunni, jeeraga samba, mapillai samba, khichadi samba, thuyamalli, and poongar red rice
Paddy varieties that belong to this land are tasty and unique. Cultivated without chemicals by the sons and daughters of the soil they are nourishing for the body and the earth. This is a heritage we can proudly gift our children.
Let us grow these rices. Let us buy them and explore recipes. Let us cook, share and gift them, while thanking the farmers for not giving up on precious grains.
Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty is the Co-Founder of Bio Basics, a social venture retailing organic food and associated with the Save Our Rice Campaign.
Some traditional varieties
Kichadi samba Slender white-grained rice, a favourite of erstwhile royalty, delicious, easy to digest, hardy and easy to grow
Thooyamalli White, as the name suggests, easy to grow and cook
Mappillai samba Red and robust, gives strength, requires patience from the cook, but doesn’t scrimp on richness and taste
Seeraga samba Our answer to basmati. Requires mollycoddling in the field and is sparing with yield, but rewards with fragrance and taste
Iluppai poo samba Delicious, fragrant, rejuvenating, small-grained, still rarely grown
Poongar Red and bold, takes time to cook, is said to be a healing grain, especially for women
And many more like garudan samba, kattuyanam, karuppu kavuni, sigappu kavuni, thanga samba, neelam samba, kullakar, karun kuruvai, swarna masuri, palkudavalai, arupatham kuruvai, ottadayan, and salem sanna