A few women from a village in the Sundarbans recently travelled to Kolkata, with sacks full of produce they had cultivated – six varieties of rare, indigenous rice, local leafy greens, condiments and wild honey that they had been taught to extract by their self-help group. In a quiet residential neighbourhood, they set up a temporary kitchen, with a little assistance from food blogger Sayantani Mahapatra, and cooked exactly the way they did back home.

The varieties of rice – Kanak Chur, Chine Kamini, Rani Akanda, Hogla, Hamilton and Kala Bhat – had distinctive flavours, aroma, texture and colour. With homegrown sides of fritters made of foraged greens, curried crabs, fish steamed in edible gourd leaves and mutton, the meal was rustic, and the presentation was rough around the edges. The idea was to make one feel at home. “This is food the way they grow it, cook it and eat it,” explained Sujoy Chatterjee, an agri-entrepreneur who helps small, independent farmers sell directly to consumers through his platform, Amar Khamar (My Farm).

The setting is decidedly different at Salt House, a chic eatery in a younger part of the city. Favoured by expats and well-travelled foodies, the restaurant boasts of an imaginative and eclectic menu that puts local ingredients at the heart of European dishes. The plating is elegant, Instagram-friendly and appeals to those who are open to innovations such as a five-rice risotto.

Head chef Auroni Mookerji says he wanted to create a vegetarian risotto “that was big on flavour and al dente, but less starchy and heavy”. Working with Original Indian Table, a company that promotes indigenous crop varieties, the team came up with a blend of two red rice, two brown rice and one black rice variety. Four of these were from Bengal. In the end, the dish was inspired by the bhoger khichuri that is served at Durga Puja pandals. Mookerji used the five-grain blend to create a risotto with toasted moong dal puree instead of parmesan, and Jharna Ghee (an iconic Bengal brand) instead of butter.

Bengal’s relationship with bhat, or rice, is an emotional one. It is more than a staple that makes for a perfect canvas for the jhol, jhaal, daal, shukto, sheddo, bhaape and other traditional sides from the region. In its many avatars, it is also a snack (chire, muri, khoi), a one-pot meal in summer when left to ferment overnight and tempered with chillies and other spicy accompaniments (panta bhat), an offering to the gods (kichuri, chal makha), and a celebratory dish (pulao, biryani, payesh, pithe). The hundreds of food stalls that line Kolkata’s streets are often collectively referred to as bhater hotel. Run mostly by families or single women, they cater to office-goers, daily wage workers and foot soldiers of the informal economy, who cannot imagine going through a day without at least one meal of rice. The menu at a regular bhater hotel changes according to the availability of the fish and vegetables that day. But you are always assured of a plate of steaming rice here.

Five-rice risotto at Salt House.

Rice not only drives the Bengal’s agrarian economy, it also nourishes the Bengali soul. The rice-loving Bengali has often risked the sobriquet of “Bheto Bangali”, meaning someone who loves his rice, siesta and nostalgia. The love affair goes back a long way. The state once boasted an astounding variety of heritage rice varieties, grown by farmers in Bankura, Birbhum, Burdwan and Sundarbans, among other districts, who tilled their small holdings using customary, chemical-free techniques that were gentler on the soil. The rice varieties were famously nutritious, environment-friendly and sturdy. But over time, they lost out to the high-yielding commercially produced rice, which is easier to sell, cook, and looks prettier when served in bone china crockery. A handful remained in cultivation and has re-emerged as a top draw at upscale restaurants, pop-ups and farmer’s markets at five-star venues.

This gentrification of the indigenous rice is fuelled by a new breed of ambitious restaurateurs, chefs, agri-entrepreneurs and a discerning consumer looking for authenticity and novelty. Not to mention a leg-up from the state government, which has been packaging folk grains and art for sale at its slick retail outlets branded Biswa Bangla. At these stores you will be introduced to names such as Tulaipanji, Kala Bhat, Kalo Nunia and the premium Gobindobhog, besides other products such as black rice pops.

Cooking up change

According to food consultant Shaun Kenworthy, it may be too early to call this a sweeping trend, but with e-commerce players selling indigenous grains, the time is right for independent restaurateurs and chefs to think out-of-the-basmati box. For his part, Kenworthy is about to introduce two dishes featuring local rice varieties at Myx Bar and Kitchen in Park Street– Sticky Black Rice Cakes with Hoisin Curry, Mayo and Crispy Garlic, and Panko Fried Bengali Fish and Rice Croquettes with Kashundi Mustard Dip. Like him, five-star chefs too are thinking glocal, though with a bit of caution. At Westin and the JW Marriott in Kolkata, the more popular and easily available Gobindobhog, an aromatic short-grained rice, is doing well in risotto and paella, while Tulsi Mukul has made its way to sushi.

Sticky Black Rice Cakes with Hoisin Curry, Mayo and Crispy Garlic at Myx.

The new-kid-on-the-food-block is Ekdalia Rd in Ballygunge. The tiny eatery has been set up by Surojit Rout, a former finance consultant, who has been getting a lot of media love for his liberal use of indigenous grains in classic European dishes. Rout’s black rice pasta, black rice cookies and red rice risotto (made with red variant of the Dudheshwar rice) seem as cheeky an innovation as the man himself, who admits to hitting upon the idea by accident. He has put small packs of Bengal rice on sale, for that one in ten customers who is impressed by his black rice payesh (a dessert) and wants to try some at home.

“Indigenous rice is an acquired taste,” said Rout, who is happy that his customers have seemingly acquired the taste that is driving his business.

New flavours

The gathering curiosity about traditional rice varieties is also tied to the rise in Bengali-themed restaurants that are reviving lost recipes and cooking techniques. The menu, featuring popular classics such Daab Chingri and Kosha Mangsho, or the rarer Dakbungalow chicken for instance, is the perfect stage to put the spotlight on Bengali rice varieties – particularly the aromatic Gobindobhog and Tulaipanji. At Sonar Tori, a restaurant designed to invoke nostalgia with a Zamindari flourish, waiters will urge you to savour your steaming mini mound of Tulaipanji with dollops of ghee and Bengali-style fritters made with seasonal vegetables. This, they say, helps bring out the delicate aroma of the rice.

At the East India Room, an elegant restaurant at a newly opened boutique hotel, the menu is inspired by the stylish banquets of the Bengali aristocrats from the colonial era. Among the many dishes that have been included is the Dhakai Morog Pulao, a chicken and rice dish in which the distinctive flavour and firmness of the rice is as important as the taste of the desi morog (rooster) and the beresta (golden fried onions). Chef Bikram Das went to great lengths to procure the Chini Gura variety of rice that was used in the original recipe. “It was tough because Chini Gura is available with only some suppliers and that too in Bangladesh,” he said. “But we had to get it because we wanted to be as historically accurate as possible.” Interestingly, while the rest of India associates biryani and pulao with fine, white rice, Chini Gura is stocky, almost granular, like sugar, hence the nomenclature.

A quirkier take on the Kolkata’s favourite food is offered by Motor Works and Brewing Company, set in the heart of the city’s IT hub, Salt Lake. Named Maa Maati Manush, the biryani is cooked with Tulaipanji and served in clay pots.

Maa Maati Manush biryani at the Motor Works and Brewing Company. Photo credit: Rashbehari Das.

Rich in lore

This newfound love for the unpolished and non-commercial rice is not just about a trendy concern with healthy eating. Yes, these varieties are rich in minerals, fibre and have a low glycemic index, making for a great desi substitute to the faddish quinoa. But for a generation of culinary enthusiasts, food also tastes better when it comes with a story. And the folk grains are as rich in their lore as they are in minerals and vitamins.

“Any product sells better when you have a strong story,” said Rout. When you are told that the pretty, aromatic Kamini rice you have been served can educate a child in the Sundarbans, you may reach out for another helping. When you are told that the nutty-flavoured kheer or payesh that is creamy in texture and coloured in berry shades is made of rice that is rich in antioxidants, you feel less anxious about your waistline. Or the Radha Tilak you have just had at a quaint Bengali restaurant comes with charming folklore – this was apparently the Hindu goddess Radha’s favourite rice – you look at the grains a little more closely.

Still, the real test of the indigenous grain lies in its acceptability in urban homes. Villagers in Bengal have been living healthier lives thanks to their diet, which is still rooted in tradition, respects seasonal cycles and the nature of the soil. For instance, in many rural households, Heera Moti rice is offered to pregnant women, for its high iron content. Stomach ailments are routinely dealt with a fistful of some varieties that are rich in both iron and zinc. But there is no way a modern household will substitute the pill for a fistful of rustic rice.

Kopurkanti rice. Photo credit: Amar Khamar.

While the evolved, niche consumer is evincing an interest in the local, rare rice grains, it is the middle-class kitchen that entrepreneurs and cultivators wish to get into. “Health cannot be the prerogative of only a handful,” said Chatterji of Amar Khamar, talking about the final and toughest wall that the humble Dudheswar, Kalabhat, Kalo Nunia, Bhootmuri need to breach.

More than creating awareness about the health benefits of the unpolished, non-commercial rice varieties, the rustic rice is also up against a social and cultural prejudice.

Thanks to the aggressive marketing strategy of mass brands, polished, fine and long rice has been a marker of affluence and class. Add to it the easy availability of basmati and other commercial grains, and you know why the grocery scales have been tipped in favour of the white and fine grains produced en masse. There are other challenges as well. Commercial kitchens may produce enough heat to cook the tough, granular, unpolished grains, but for most time-starved homes, cooking time is a matter of concern.

Till the time health and history takes precedence over convenience, we may just have to keep ourselves amused with the occasional trip to a nostalgia restaurant for a comforting meal of aromatic Bengal rice and hilsa. Or learn how to tell the grains apart in a five-rice risotto.