In an exclusive interview with The Better India, Menaka speaks about her journey of discovering the different varieties of rice in India.
“My husband and I used to work in the same office, and almost four years after knowing each other, we got married in 2008. A year later, in 2009, I delivered my first-born and, with that, my husband started looking at ways in which we could enrich our lives. He was always interested in finding and cooking food that is traditionally grown in our region, and having a child only made that need stronger,” she says.
“What started off as something that we wanted to do only for our child has led to setting up a shop and creating an organic food line. We stumbled upon so much information that we wanted to do more about it. Meeting agriculture scientist Nammalvar was a turning point in Thilak’s life,” she says.
Nammalvar was the one who urged Thilak to get into the science of rice cultivation rather than just read about it.
“Did you know that in India, traditionally, we cultivated more than one lakh varieties of rice? Today, unfortunately, we do not even cultivate 30 varieties. So much so that we import rice from other countries,” she says.
Nobody cultivates these varieties because there is no demand for them. “On the one hand, we are urging the government to create jobs and help farmers, but on the other hand, we are not encouraging our traditional varieties and are happy to buy imported varieties of rice–where is the sense in that?” she asks.
Speaking about how we are the ‘two-minute generation’ she says, “The traditional rice varieties take time for cultivation. While the rice that most of us consume now is a 30-day variety, the ones that are good for us take anywhere from 70 to 180 days, with some varieties even taking 200 days for cultivation. Are we willing to wait?” she asks.
She continues, “I can say with certainty that the rice that is widely consumed today is adulterated. There was a time when my grandmother would soak black urad dal for eight hours, peel the skin and then use the dal to make the batter for idli and dosa. Today, even to remove the skin, chemicals are used.”
When asked if there has been a shift in how people view these traditional varieties of rice, she says, “We started the shop (Aswat Eco Organics) almost ten years ago when people would buy even 500 grams or one kilogram of rice with great reluctance.”
She adds, “In our shop, we source 25 varieties of rice. The problem arises because of lack of consistency. While I have customers who keep coming back for the same rice, some of them do not come back for more after trying it once and so cultivating that variety leads to a loss for the farmer.”
Traditional rice also needs to be cooked differently, and one needs to be patient while learning these techniques. In 2017, Maneka participated in the Assist World Records.
“I did that only to create awareness about these different varieties of rice. It was also my way of paying a tribute to my late husband, for it was his dream to make these varieties a household name,” she says.
With a larger thrust on organic food and eating local, here’s wishing Menaka all the best in her endeavour to revive these traditional varieties of rice.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)