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Rude Food: our rich rice legacy

brunch Updated: Jun 15, 2013 18:28 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
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It is a funny business, all these prejudices about rice. North Indians think of themselves as wheat-eaters; it is the south Indians who are rice-eaters, they say. In the Middle East, they act as if they discovered rice, claiming pulaos and biryanis for themselves. In Europe, Italians will lecture you about the virtues of arborio versus carnaroli (see last week’s Rude Food), as though rice is their very own thing.

So it is with rice varieties. All over north India, basmati is the only breed that counts; everything else is regarded as inferior. In the south, they are less respectful of basmati and far more knowledgeable about rice varieties. In such states as Kerala, they grow so many interesting kinds of rice that that they earmark each variety for a particular kind of dish: a small rice for payasam, a large-grained red variety for sambhar rice, broken rice for upma or porridge (kanji) and yet another variety for the delicious biryanis of the Moplahs. fact, all Indians should take a special pride in rice. Yes, it is true that archaeologists have found evidence of rice cultivation in China, dating back to 6,000 BC. But this does not mean that rice originated in China. All the evidence suggests that rice is Indian, the one food that we gave to the rest of the world. The wild grasses that turned into rice have been around pretty much since the beginning of time. But rice was first cultivated – from those wild grasses – in the foothills of the Himalayas, long before it turned up in the Yangtze valley. Archaeologists have found terraced fields in Kashmir, suggestive of rice cultivation, that have been dated to 10,000 BC or four thousand years before the Chinese first thought of any kind of fried rice. So yes, rice is ours. We found the wild grass. We cultivated it. And we gave rice to the rest of humanity.

But for all this nonsense about fair, wheat-eating Aryans and north Indians, the reality is that rice was really the staple food of north India. It did not actually reach south India till 1,000 BC or many, many centuries after north Indians had been cultivating it. In contrast, wheat, which north Indians are so proud of, came to India from the Middle East and is not our own grain at all.

There is some evidence to suggest that the people of the Indus Valley civilisation cultivated wheat. But the Aryans, who north Indians like to claim they are descended from, had no interest in wheat at all. There are virtually no references to wheat in Vedic literature (the Aryans ate rice – though perhaps, not with sambhar) and we have to wait till the Buddhist period for mentions of wheat in texts. Somehow, the notion of brave Aryan warriors fighting and banishing the Dravidians (largely mythical but widely subscribed to in north India) seems less compelling when you realise that after these fair-skinned horsemen had finished with battle they probably sat down to a meal of curd rice. (Or perhaps payasam to give them some energy).

If north Indians are reluctant to see themselves as descendants of curd-rice-wallahs, what of all the other people who act as though rice is their own invention? If I hear another Pakistani telling me that jihadis brought biryani to the subcontinent, I will throw up.

The reality is that rice took centuries to reach the Middle East. It did not even get to Japan till after the birth of Christ (about 10,000 years after we were cultivating it). The Middle East became familiar with rice after Persian traders took it to their part of the world around 500 AD. It only reached Egypt in the seventh century. And it became popular among Arabs because the Prophet was said to like rice and ghee. The Prophet’s dates are: born 570 AD, died 632 AD. So that makes the Islamic connection with rice a seventh century phenomenon.

As for pilaf which the Arab/Turks claim to have invented, yeah, well... in fact, the earliest pilaf recipes date back to the 13th century AD, by which stage every Indian knew how to make hundreds of rice dishes. As for khichri, it may well be the oldest rice dish that is still regularly eaten by millions. The Egyptians got it from us and made it a part of their cuisine long before the Turks started bragging about their pilafs.

The rice match: In Kerala, they earmark each variety for a particular kind of dish: a large-grained red variety for sambhar-rice (above)

I’m a little more patient with Europeans when they brag about the red rice of the Camargue (in France) or the fat rices of Italian cookery because the poor sods don’t know any better. When Alexander and his European army arrived in north India in 326 BC, they had never heard of rice. Contemporary accounts from Macedonian writers treat our staple grain as though it was some magic food. Perhaps some Europeans took rice back from India with them (though I doubt it – there is not one mention of rice in the Bible). But rice really only reached Spain (where they are proud of their paella) when Arab/Moorish soldiers introduced it to Spaniards. And as for Italians, the earliest recipes for risotto date only to the 19th century.

So rice is our thing. It is the great Indian food. There are over 8,000 varieties of rice and my guess is that we can probably grow several thousand of them in our subcontinent. And indeed I can think of hundreds that we do grow.

But here’s my complaint: we make too little of rice. If you hear restaurateurs tfalk, they will brag about a roti/ paratha /naan chef and will praise the touch of his fingers. But no rice cook ever gets any respect: he is just the mundu who boils the grains. Worse still, despite being the land of rice, most Indians have no clue about the many different varieties that are available in our country.

For this, I lay the blame entirely on north Indians. First of all, they subscribe to all this Aryan-wheat-eater rubbish which has no historical basis. And when the Muslim kings and emperors arrived, north Indians quickly abandoned their own rice tradition and became slaves to the rice dishes of people from Central Asia and the Middle East who knew nothing about rice. Too much fuss was made over biryani and pulao. (Even now if you ask for rice at a restaurant in north India, they will try and put peas in it on the mistaken assumption that ordinary rice is too humble and that some kind of pulao is called for.)

But the worst thing north Indians have done is to elevate basmati to the status of king of rice. It is considered cheap to serve any rice other than basmati to guests and all that Mughal court nonsense about rice (dreamt up by people who were essentially rice-illiterates) prevails: it must have long grains, each grain must remain separate after cooking, the rice should smell of butter, etc.

False claims! If I hear another Pakistani telling me that jihadis brought biryani to the subcontinent, I will throw up

It is only once you leave north India, its restaurants and its ignorant chefs that you get some sense of the richness of India’s rice tradition. You cannot enjoy a Goan meal unless you eat it with the fat, partly-polished rice of the region. You cannot possibly serve basmati with many Malayali dishes – you must use one of the magnificent rices of Kerala. You can’t make appams unless you have the right rice for the flour. And you cannot make payasam with the rice you use for kheer.

But north Indians are prisoners of their prejudices, willing and credulous followers of traditions established by ignorant Central Asian dynasties who knew nothing about rice. I’ve been to fancy south Indian restaurants in Delhi where they serve basmati. I’ve even got into arguments with moronic executive chefs at hotels who insist that Chinese fried rice should be made with basmati. Of the big hotel chains, only the Oberois care about rice, always offering a brown rice option at buffets. (“It won’t work,” a chef at a rival chain told me. “Indians want rice that is very white.” What a load of cobblers!)

So let’s abandon these prejudices. Let’s celebrate the diversity of India’s rich rice culture. Without our ancestors, there would be no rice and therefore, no sushi, no risotto, no rice pudding, no pulao, no paella and no nasi goreng. As inheritors of that proud legacy, let us not bury it under a mound of basmati (served with peas, no doubt).

From HT Brunch, June 16
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