29 June 2016 15:05:19 IST

Why are we going against the grain?

Contrary to popular belief, rice is actually best suited for Southern climates

As I scroll through my smartphone in the morning with half-open eyes, a post on social media tells me that idlis (South Indian-style rice dumplings) are just seven decades old (yes, you heard right) and another describes the ill effects(!) of rice. Before I rant about these, let me give you a gist of the glorious history, cultivation and benefits of rice. Our ancestors were so enamoured of rice that they took meticulous care even in naming the varieties.

My maternal grandma, an octogenarian now, owned acres of paddy fields in Narapakkam village of Kanchipuram district. She tells me that the varieties were named keeping in mind the appearance, characteristics and the nature of the soil of the place where the grains were sown.

Sample these: Azhagu samba ( azhagu means beautiful), Arumburosa samba (the grain is shaped like an arumburosa, which means flower bud), Ottadai samba ( ottadai means spider web), Kichilli samba ( kichilli is a type of fruit), Sadai samba ( sadai means braided hair), Seeraga samba ( seeraga is cumin, the rice has cumin’s fragrance), Ponmani ( ponmani are small golden beads), Iluppai Poo samba (name of a flower), Thogai samba (the grains are shaped like, thogai , or peacock feathers) and Malligai samba ( malligai is jasmine in Tamil) are the names of some rice varieties, based on appearance.

Here are some varieties that have been named based on their colour: Kungumapalai (red-dried), Sembalai (short/half-red) and Thumbai pasi (the grain is as white as the thumbai flower).

Then there are others named for various other reasons. Take, for example, the Maapillai samba, termed so as soaking it overnight and drinking the water in the morning is supposed to provide vigour and energy to the bridegroom, or the Pisini variety ( pisini is a stingy person), perhaps because of its limited volume of expansion on cooking, or even the Kalar samba (‘kalar’ means a ‘place of alkalinity’), which is alkaline-resistant.

This makes me wonder about the deep thought that would have gone into naming the hundreds of varieties; and how erudite people were in those days!

Versatile grain

Akki Roti

Today, we see rice falling from its glory — it is being portrayed as unhealthy, a so-called villain on the food scene. And by whom? None other than those obsessed with ‘fairness’, who robbed the grain of its bran (the dark outer covering).

But it is clear from many studies that the grain is actually a superb alternative for glutens — it gives you instant energy, is rich in carbohydrates and is among the most commonly consumed foods that does not contain preservatives.

Murukku

Rice is also highly versatile and lends itself to all kinds of snacks, other than being a staple in regions across India. Who can forget the classic akki roti (a flat, unleavened, spiced pancake, commonly had for breakfast in Karnataka, and also served at high tea), the crispy murukkus (a popular savoury snack in Tamil Nadu) or the paalsoru (rice mixed with milk and a dash of sugar) that your granny fed you and your cousins? And, of course, no breakfast can match those round, white, fluffy idlis topped with a layer of ghee floating in delicious sambhar .

Half-baked knowledge

Idlis floating on sambar

In the name of health-consciousness and the half-baked knowledge that we gain (no thanks to social media) we tend to ignore the benefits of our traditional foods. For the couch potatoes of this generation, rice-based snacks are definitely a better bet than the maida -based or gram-flour based ones, which can often result in gastro disorders and sometimes even obesity.

Recently, I happened to read an article which suggested that, to live a long and peaceful life, we should eat what our grandparents ate. How true! I wish I could do that. My other grandma’s routine was to eat ragi dumplings with a spinach-based gravy for breakfast, hand-pounded rice with loads of veggies for lunch and, additionally, seasonal fruits (not just the apple, mind you). She could walk a mile without any fuss well into her 90s. Oh, and she doesn’t eat all this sitting at a dining table. She still sits on the floor. My cousins, friends and I really envy her.

Climatic conditions

Eating wheat chapathis everyday is now a fad. But given the climatic conditions down South, rice is still your best bet. Wheat is mostly suited for an upcountry menu, best eaten at places in higher altitudes. While rice aids in digestion, long-term consumption of wheat in areas where it is not the traditional staple could lead to chronic constipation or heat-related issues.

Despite all this, if you still think rice is bad for your health and a strict no-no for weight-watchers, you may just be doomed to spend a fortune on a pack of quinoa (the Bolivian wondergrain) and help the South American country grow its GDP and exports. Support their agrarian community while you go ‘tut-tut’ at news updates on our farmers' suicides. Or be happy to fill your tummy with the ‘plastic’ rice being dumped by our Dragon neighbour.