Pongal special: Conservationists and chefs on reviving forgotten grains and using them in everything from biryani to biscotti

Ahead of the Pongal weekend, we reap a fresh harvest of culinary innovation and changing conversation around indigenous grains
Arcot kozhi biryani made with Thooyamalli rice from Tamil Nadu
Arcot kozhi biryani made with Thooyamalli rice from Tamil Nadu

Forgotten heritage grains are being revived with a steady gusto. Over the past decade, organic stores which were once considered overly expensive and not for everyone have now become ubiquitous in the city. Chefs are joining hands with rice conservationists to curate unique menus which include everything from biryani to biscotti. And adding momentum to the movement on a global scale, this year, is the United Nations declaring 2023 as the International Year of Millets — both to raise awareness on its nutritional benefits as well as to highlight their suitability for cultivation under adverse and changing climate conditions.

Alongside Pongal celebrations this weekend, we shine a spotlight on the ever-evolving conversation around native rice varieties and indigenous grains from around the country. Farmers apart, some folks are reaping an impressive harvest this season of ideas and collaborated effort painstakingly sowed over the years. Like rice historian, Sheela Balaji, who tells us that her conservation initiative and store, in Mylapore, Spirit of the Earth, has preserved 272 varieties, native to different states this year. This includes Mapillai Champa (Tamil Nadu) which you can use to make murukku or ribbon pakoda, Chennellu (Kerala) which can be prepped into a red rice poha and Bakul Phool (West Bengal) which pairs wonderfully with curries and stews.

<em>Kaatuyanam rice cocktail</em>
Kaatuyanam rice cocktail

Ponni for your thoughts 
When we talk about how much has changed since she began her research with just two varieties back in 2012, she tells us the difference is as stark as night and day. “When we started, it was talking about heritage grains vs hybrid ones and what differentiates them,” she takes us back. “But today, we notice the conversation has evolved. The customer is aware of what he or she is looking for. And by that, we mean farming practices as well as a knowledge of traditional grains.” Some customers become so passionate after doing their research that they even become conservationists themselves, like Chennai-based Harjas Singh whose online store Qidhan ties up with farmers in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. “My mom and I started this venture during the pandemic shortly after looking for healthier rice swaps for ourselves at the time,” he shares. Interestingly, while Ponni and Basmati are both included on the list, their biggest seller is the Vitamin E-rich Karuppu Kavuni (black rice), while the iron rich Rakthashali and bone fortifying Navara (both red rice) are quite popular as well.

<em>Mapillai samba bread</em>
Mapillai samba bread

Grain of truth
While there is an evident growing knowledge base of indigenous grains, chef and food historian Shri Bala tells us that a bulk of the populace still needs an education on how to choose a rice. “Yes, organic stores are in every corner these days. So, we have increased access to indigenous grains. But do you know what rice to buy and why? And then there is the matter of varying soaking times, cooking methods and so forth. This is a gap that definitely needs to be bridged,” she says. In response to her question, we consult with nutritionist Minacshi Pettukola who has a great starter tip for newbies who might find themselves overwhelmed by a sea of choice. “Look for a grain you like,” she says. “If you’re making a switch to an unpolished, healthier grain, change is easier to sustain if this is in place first,” she says. Other guidelines, she recommends, to make your grain choice include asking questions like: is it good for my specific medical condition? (think diabetes, hormonal imbalances), what are my goals? (weight loss perhaps) and most importantly, can I digest it easily? (for those prone to bloating). Here’s raising a ladle and a pressure cooker as you get to know your grains better; and en route the journey, hopefully, reap healthy gains. 

Rice & shine

Chefs around the city are exploring creative new ways to dish up a serving of lesser known grains:
Mapillai Samba Bread: La Patisserie has introduced a gluten-free Mapillai Samba Bread which is made with a rice flour dough that is allowed to ferment naturally and then baked. Soft in texture, this loaf is perfect for tea time. At Taj Coromandel, available on request. INR 250 for a 250 gm loaf.

Kaatuyaanam Surp-rice: This cocktail prepped with Kaatuyanam rice congee, jaggery and vodka has been rolled out by Leather Bar and Pasha just in time for Pongal. The name Kaatuyanam comes from the fact that the red rice variety grows so high, it is tall enough to hide a wild elephant! At The Park Chennai. INR 800 ++ Also, not to miss is the Nellore Aatu Kari Biryani and Arcot Kozhi Biryani made with a fragrant Thooyamalli (which means pure Jasmine) rice from Tamil Nadu. Available on the Pongal buffet or pre-ordered on request. INR 955 ++ for a single portion.

<em>Navathaniya granola</em>
Navathaniya granola

Harvest Biscotti: Wholesome Rhapsody has introduced a Pongal special biscotti made with a combination of  wholegrain organic red and brown rices like Karunkuruvai, Rakthashali, Bora, Laicha, and Mapillai Samba. Apart from being low glycemic, this healthy treat is also vegan, gluten-free and refined sugar-free. INR 325 for 125 gms.

9 Millet Granola: Chef Saravanan’s company The Chef’s Feast (TCF) recently introduced a navathaniya (nine grain) granola bar made with a plethora of millets including Horse Gram, Pearl Millet, Samba Kotumai and Red Rice. INR 230 for 230 gms.

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