We all probably remember the scene from B.R. Chopra's 'Mahabharata' tele-series where it took just one grain of rice — to satiate the appetite of Lord Krishna — who in turn made sages feel full. So that is how old India's connection with rice is. There are more than 6000 different varieties of rice in India. However, many ecologists estimate that tens of thousands of native rice varietals were lost in the last forty years.
There is strong archaeological evidence of rice cultivation in India. These reports suggest that rice was the basis of India's ancient civilisations. Historians have mentioned rice being used in the Ganges River valley as far back as 6500 BC.
The Hindi word for rice back during the time of the Vedas was "jom" which means "to eat" and comes from the word Munda. It is thought to have become "chom-la" and then "chaval", which is the most popular Hindi word for rice or as called in some languages — bhaat.
Traces and physical pieces of rice cultivation evidence were found in Kashmir. In this region, terraced fields perfect for rice cultivation were found in these mountains as early as 10,000 BCE. In parts of northern and north-western India, the earliest evidence of rice was found.
And though it's eaten more in the southern part, it arrived there much later. The Sanskrit word for rice, "varisi," gave way to the Tamil word "arise" which travelled to Europe and became rice.
Some suggest that rice cultivation began in the great Asian civilisations in today's India, China, Thailand and elsewhere almost autonomously. With more than 110,000 varieties of rice developed in India alone, how can one deny the indignity of this grain!
A recent report by Indian paleo scientists revealed they had discovered in a lake called Lahuradewa in Uttar Pradesh. At this lake, traces of independent domestication of rice pre-dating established Chinese origins by 800 years existed. Current theories clearly cite that the Chinese first domesticated, and then spread the rice to the rest of the world. However, this report could change a lot of things.
Rice is eaten across the country today. No celebration is complete without the inclusion of rice — be it a sweet made from rice for a ceremony or a yummy rice biryani at a wedding!
Rice has emerged as the most cultivated grain on the planet, and India is its second-largest producer — growing 20% of global production. Rice is widely eaten across India. From simple steamed rice with dal to idly's and appam in the south and the sticky rice variations in the North-Eastern states — 50% of India's 1.2 billion people depending on rice for sustenance.
Let's take a look at some of the indigenous varieties of rice in India:
Kashmir's Mushk Budij: Ideal for these areas cold climate, this is short-grained rice with a distinctly sweet aroma and taste.
Uttar Pradesh's Kala Namak: The long-grained, fragrant rice gets its name from its black husk.
West Bengal's Tulaipanji: Highly resistant to pests this medium-grained aromatic rice tastes best with stews and gravies.
Goa's Korgut: This is salt-resistant red rice that thrives in the inter-tidal mudflats and khazan (reclaimed) land.
Kerala's Mullan Kazhama: A popular form of short-grained and aromatic rice, this variety is used to make Malabar biryani.
Tamil Nadu's Kaatuyaanam: This red grain rice grows super-tall — just enough to hide elephants! Thus the name which means "wild elephant."
Manipur's Chak-hao Poireiton: This is nutty, non-glutinous rice with a sweet flavor which is believed to be rich with anti-oxidants.
Assam's Komal Saul: Also referred to as "instant" rice, this variety is ready to eat after being soaked in warm water for a few minutes.
Odisha's Kalabati: Don't get deceived by its black colour. This nutritionally dense black variety was brought back from the brink of extinction.
Research has established consistency that rice is a staple item in almost all of India's extremely diverse cuisine cultures, with different words for rice in each of India's 29 official languages! It has been mentioned ancient Indian texts, including the Yajur Veda which had been compiled in the period circa 1800 BC. While there is still speculation of it being native to India, the way we have embraced rice in our cuisine — it's an indigenous staple indeed!