Go with the grain

Narayanan Unny is betting on red. The farmer from Kerala is gambling on a 2,500-year-old variety of red rice to feed a new appetite for “super foods” and organic produce among India’s elite.

“This is a health-food rice,” says Unny, a tall, slender man with close-cropped silver hair, pointing to the first shoots of the russet-coloured grain in his paddy fields in Palakkad, central Kerala.

A couple of white Siberian cranes pick their way through the waters of the fields, their spindly legs threatening the paper-thin blades of hand-planted rice. Coconut palms lollop around the sides. It’s an exotic stage for a risky endeavour. “Farming is hazardous in Kerala and red rice is an extra degree of risk,” says Unny, lifting up the ends of his floor-length dhoti to protect the white linen sarong from the copper-red earth.

He ties the cloth swiftly into a knee-length covering. Men in the coastal state make this nifty wardrobe adjustment constantly, but it is particularly useful when working with a crop partially submerged in water.

Red rice, which retains its outer bran layer, has almost five times more iron, three times more zinc and twice as much fibre as its polished and perfumed cousin, basmati. It has a nutty, earthy flavour and outdoes even virtuous brown rice in nutritional value.

Originally the filling food of south India’s poor farmers and labourers, the unusual grain is now starting to feature in the restaurants of Mumbai’s luxury hotels. It’s generally served as a side dish or in a traditional porridge with Keralan coconut fish curry, but its glutinous consistency means chefs are also beginning to use it to create a rose-coloured risotto. (Also grown in Bhutan and Sri Lanka, red rice ranked fourth on the list of top side-dish trends for 2012, chosen by chefs in the National Restaurant Association survey in the US.)

Red rice sales are growing 70 per cent year-on-year at Morarka Organic Foods Ltd, which has been supplying the grain to about 1,000 shops in India for just over two years. At £1.45 per kg it’s about a third more expensive than their regular organic basmati.

Rajdeep Kapoor, executive chef at ITC Maratha, a five-star hotel in Mumbai, says red rice is versatile and increasingly popular outside its traditional south Indian heartland, where the most widely eaten variety is matta, a stumpy, reddish-orange grain.

“In India we are very fond of using basmati,” says Kapoor, who has worked in hotel kitchens for 25 years. “This matta rice is the total opposite, but a lot of people in the north are choosing it because it has nutritional value. It lowers cholesterol and is recommended for diabetics.”

The navara variety, which Unny grows organically (hence the name of his holding, Navara Eco Farm), is a deeper shade of red, close to purple. It has been cultivated in Palakkad, Kerala’s rice belt, for more than 2,500 years and is believed by locals to combat ailments from snakebites to liver disease. But in the past 50 years, navara, which grows between November and January, has come close to extinction.

The introduction of higher-yielding hybrid varieties of rice, in what became known as India’s “green revolution”, has caused the loss of about 70,000 of the country’s 100,000 varieties of indigenous rice since the mid-1960s. More recently, a shift from labour-intensive, hand-farmed rice to lucrative cash crops such as rubber has torn up Kerala’s patchwork of paddy fields and coconut palms, leaving only scraps of land where rice is grown.

With just 10 acres of paddy fields, Unny claims to have the world’s largest navara rice farm. His mission to rescue this fragile heritage rice began 15 years ago, after he gave up his successful business as a computer salesman to take over the family holding. Since then he has been given a “genome saviour” award by the Indian government and secured a Geographical Indication – a patent – anchoring his rice in Palakkad and protecting it, he hopes, from imitation.

“We’re promoting this as a wellness rice,” says Unny, “but we are not looking to cash in on whatever is new. This rice has been used for thousands of years – it just wasn’t being farmed recently.”

Although he has yet to turn a profit, Unny counts one of Kerala’s leading actors, Mammootty, among his customers and is aiming to add more affluent and health-conscious Indians to his order book. He’s pitching navara to the upper end of the market and selling 1kg of milled rice for £4.56. Farmers of matta rice in Palakkad sell their grain to the mill for 20 pence per kg – a rate subsidised by the government – and the mill sells it at 35 pence per kg. “The cost of production is £3.46 per kilogramme. We haven’t increased the price since 2008, but the cost of everything else has gone up,” Unny says.

The smartly branded pack of navara rice even claims the grain has anti-cancer properties, which Unny ascribes to its antioxidant content, although there is no scientific proof of this. However, a study by the Kerala State Council for Science Technology and Environment is currently using Unny’s navara to investigate medicinal rices in Kerala.

“We are confident that the studies that come out will show the properties of this rice,” says Unny, who describes himself as a farmer-scientist. “People have been using it as an effective treatment and to build up their immune systems for thousands of years.”

In his large farmhouse, the dining table is covered in round, stainless-steel bowls filled with navara-based dishes including pongal, a fiery mix of navara powder, fresh coconut, ginger, green chillies and pepper. Kozhukattai, small balls made from broken navara rice, sit in another bowl, seasoned with mustard seeds, curry leaves and red chillies, served with coconut chutney. Red rice takes almost three times as long to cook as white varieties, but its full flavour means it can be used as the main attraction in a meal instead of simply being the foil for a spicy scene-stealer.

Grains of navara

On the table there’s also a milky navara rice pudding called paysam and a dark, sticky and sweet rice dessert, avil, made with jaggery syrup, clarified butter, banana, ginger and cardamom powder.

In Palakkad itself, in a small, bare concrete room at M.M. Hotel (in India, even the smallest shack serving food is called a hotel) matta rice is served in a prosaic but popular porridge, ladled from a steel bucket on to customers’ plates. The glutinous, soupy rice is tinged pink and surrounded by small plates of tapioca, cabbage, tomato pickle and a large bowl of salt.

Vinod Menon, a pharmaceuticals salesman, sits at one of the plastic tables eating the 35p meal. “When someone falls ill, the doctors recommend matta rice in porridge form because it helps for rehydration,” he says.

The more upmarket Nalanda Rich restaurant, also in Palakkad, has only one banana-leaf plate of matta rice left by 2pm. Between 150 and 200 plates of boiled matta with coconut and carrot, gooseberry chutney, tapioca and elephant yam side dishes are served here every day. Unni Maniyate, a Keralan living in Dubai, has just returned for a holiday. “You get matta rice in Dubai, but it’s not the same quality and taste,” he says. “Here it’s fresh,” he adds, using his fingertips as a pincer to gather up the last grains.

Back beside the paddy fields of Navara Eco Farm, Unny explains he has planted 75 per cent of his rice two weeks early instead of waiting until the end of Kerala’s second monsoon season. Poor southwestern monsoon rains in June mean he faces a paddy field water shortage if the northeast monsoon from the Bay of Bengal is also weak. But if a late deluge occurs, his crop, which can be wiped out by a heavy dew, may be lost. “It’s a risk,” he says. “But I’m accustomed to that.”

Joanna Sugden is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi

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