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Why You Should Try Goa's Heirloom Rice Varieties


How ‘Fazenda Cazulo’ & 'Against the Grain' project aims to revive Goa’s heirloom rice production- guest blog by Hansel Vaz Goa’s renaissance man

We have been grown up to believe that, the best-tasting rice in the world comes from the fields of Goa. Which is why through a recently launched initiative- ‘Against the Grain’, a plan to revive Goa’s indigenous heirloom rice heritage through sustainable and community driven initiatives is underway. The project not only works with rice farmers in the villages of Goa, but directly to involve chefs, home-makers, bartenders and brewers to cultivate an impact in the culinary heritage space, so consumers know exactly where the grains come from and how it gets to their plate.

It was a  few years ago that a newspaper article by Dr. Nandakumar Kamat, a luminary Professor from my alma mater- the Goa University, that caught my interest. To quote, “The mysterious names of traditional rice varieties of Goa hide the story of their origin and domestication. These unique names, which throw a challenge to linguists and anthropologists, are Damgo, Kalo Damgo, Babri, Dodig, Kochri or Khochri, Patni, Corgut or Korgut, Kalo Korgut, Asago, Kendal, Kenal, Vadlo Kenal, Sotti, Giresal, Xitto, Nermar, Mudgo, Shirdi, Belo, Noxvan, Dongri, Valai or Valay, Chagar, Kusago, Runga, Odusko, Panyo, Mutalgo, Barik kudi, Dhave, Ek Kadi, Ghansal, Girga, Kalo novan, Kalo Mungo, Karz, Kolyo, Kotmirsal, Masuri, Muno, Ner, Sal, Taysu, Shiedi and Tamde Jyoti.” Imagine the possibility to be able to smell and taste some authentic heirloom Goan rice at a family meal? Wouldn’t that be awesome!

Through sustainable agriculture practiced by generations of rice farmers, an astonishing variety of smells, tastes, colour and size of the different strains of rice have been created over at least 3000 years of civilisation in Goa. Once pillar of Goa’s agriculture, the cultivation of indigenous heirloom varieties of rice has  all but collapsed over decades following the ‘Green Revolution’ that encouraged farmers to grow hybrid rice. It would be a crime against our culture, if the significant efforts of a few thousand years cannot be realised in the 21st century. The ‘Against the Grain’ project, launched this June (2021) through community participation aims to enable farm-owners to regrow extinct heirloom rice varieties of rice while bringing back the original diversity to our cuisine and culture. Grown on lateritic and coastal alluvial rain-rich soils of Goa’s hinterland and coast, the cultivation of these rare varieties of rice could revitalise rice farming and farmer incomes in our villages. What is interesting is that this project also seeks to uniquely collaborate with entrepreneurs in the Bar and Brewing business. Bar Tesouro’s snazzy bartenders swapped their bar aprons and went knee deep in help sow the rice paddy, and Goa Brewing Co.- a craft brewery in Goa has committed to use only local rice in their freshly brewed lagers.

Giresal- an aromatic short-grain rice variety of rice has been selected to be the first heirloom rice to be grown artisanally at the farm of the Fernandes Family (my in-laws) in the coastal village of Cansaulim in South Goa. This rare regional variety of dark-brown husked rice (the grain is white) is incredibly aromatic, and as my mom fondly remembers; “if you cook giresal at home, your entire neighbourhood will know!”. Giresal could never match the marketing glitz of other commercially available rice varieties, and so over time almost became extinct. The giresal rice that's grown is not a commercial seed, but something that the local farmers have been growing independently for generations. Following each harvest, part of the seed is kept and reused. These rare varieties of rice are not found outside the villages, as they are not commercialised. We hope to explore the other heirloom varieties  and so far have managed to collect 16 other varieties of rice, which we want to share with the wider culinary world. At the Fernandes family’s rice paddy, all the rice is hand-farmed, without the use of destructive technology so that nutrients and taste the grains are preserved and packed within. Over the past 50 years, farmers may have gradually stopped growing these varieties altogether, but the all our future plans have one common denominator: we want to start an heirloom rice revolution in Goa.