When the mild winter arrives in south India around December or January, cool winds and pleasant temperatures replace the remnants of lashing rains from the northeastern monsoons. In the mountainous regions of central Kerala, the chill in the air signals the planting of medicinal Indian red rice, navara, a crop cultivated only once a year, usually between February and April. Navara, with its red bran layer is characteristic to Kerala.
Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medical system, calls it shastika rice and claims that it can restore imbalances in the human body. Navara rice is rich in antioxidants and polyphenols and has two or three times as much zinc and iron as white rice. It has the rare capability to enrich, strengthen, regenerate and energize the body. It is also used as baby food and replaces white rice on traditional days of partial fasting in many parts of India.
The red color, varying from light to dark red, is confined to the bran layer, but a touch of red remains on the grains even after milling. Navara grows fast compared to other varieties of rice; it takes around 60 to 72 days from planting to harvest, depending on the area of cultivation of and weather conditions. Navara rice is also resistant to insects and pests and can be stored for long time.
Bringing back a rare Indian red rice variety
Despite its medicinal properties, the cultivation of this rice variety is quite limited. Pure seeds have become difficult to find due to cross-pollination. Cultivating and preserving the seeds for this unusual variety is difficult.
Navara is a low-yield variety not well suited for commercial cultivation. The introduction of other, high-yielding varieties of rice in the 1960s and 1970s and the genetically modified varieties of the 1990s also adversely affected the cultivation of navara. Navara Eco Farm, a family owned farm in Chittur, Kerala, is pioneering the efforts to preserve navara rice. P. Narayanan Unny, the third-generation owner who took over the farm in 1995, has taken bold initiatives in his conservation efforts.
Unny decided to implement organic farming methods to preserve the crop’s medicinal properties. Converting to an organic methods was a challenge. After years of effort, he collected a sufficient quantity of navara seeds and gradually began cultivating only navara rice. Farm workers were taught organic farming skills, and the farm is mentoring neighboring farming communities and educating them the fundamentals of organic farming.
The cultivation of navara is a meditative process, passed down through generations. The rice fields are plowed, and farm workers sow the seeds and wait for a few days to replant the tender new shoots. Rice is traditionally farmed by hand; under cloudy or clear skies, men and women stoop in the deep mud and plant the rice, stalk by stalk. Soon the farm land is dotted with bright green bristles. Weeks later, the land is draped in vivid emerald, speckled with pools of reflective water. Slowly, the tall sheaves ripen, hanging in golden bunches.
When the leaves of the rice stalk start turning yellow, it is time for the harvest. Stalks are cut with iron sickles and tied in bundles to dry in farmyards and on roadsides. The whole farm becomes a large drying area. The languid air becomes heavy with dust and there is the constant sound of threshing as the grains are separated from the dried stacks. After threshing, the rice is ready for milling.
Historically the bran was removed from the grains by hand as people pounded them in ural (a stone or wooden trough) with ulakka (a long wooden or sometimes iron pole with a metal bottom). Two women would each pick up an ulakka, and together they would pulverize the grains. When one pole went in, other went up in the air; the two of them work in a synchronized motion. Now this laborious and time-consuming step is replaced by a special milling process that removes the hull without losing most of the bran.
Unny’s long-term plan focused on organic farming methods, biodiversity and conservation. In 2006 the farm and its products were certified organic by the National Project on Organic Production, European Union and U.S. Department of Agriculture.
He formed two associations of navara and palakkadan matta farmers and applied for geographical indication certification. In 2007, these two rice varieties were the first agricultural products in India to be registered with a geographical indication. India’s agriculture ministry honored Unny with the Plant Genome Savior Community Recognition Award for his conservation efforts.
Navara Neypaayasam (Navara Rice Pudding With Indian Brown Sugar and Ghee)
Neypaayasam, like risotto, is a creamy and closely bound mass of rice grains. But unlike risotto, it is very sweet and enriched with ghee, cashew nuts, coconut and raisins. Being rich with ghee and jaggery (Indian brown sugar), it remains fresh for several days, even without refrigeration. If navara rice is not available this rice pudding may be prepared with long grain white rice.
2 cups navara rice
3½ cups, plus 3 tablespoons water
2 cups jaggery
1 cup ghee
¼ cup unsalted cashew nuts, broken into pieces
2 tablespoons fresh coconut, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon seedless raisins
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds, crushed
1. Rinse the navara rice in several changes of water until the water runs clear.
2. In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil and stir in the rice. Cook it over medium heat for 15 to 18 minutes, until the rice is well cooked and almost all of the water has evaporated.
3. Place a heavy skillet over medium heat and melt the jaggery, or brown sugar, along with 3 tablespoons of water. When the sugar has liquefied and has started bubbling, transfer it to the rice pot along with 2 tablespoons of ghee and keep stirring gently. (Reserve 1 tablespoon of ghee for frying the garnishes.) Keep adding the remaining ghee to the rice, a couple of tablespoons at a time, stirring until the rice absorbs all of it.
4. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes. When well cooked, the neypaayasam will start leaving the sides of the pot as you stir. Remove the pot from the stove.
5. Heat the remaining ghee in a small skillet over medium heat and add the cashew nuts. When they start turning golden brown, add the coconut slices and raisins, and keep stirring. The coconut will turn golden brown, and the raisins will become plump as they soak up the ghee.
6. Garnish the neypaayasam with toasted nuts, raisins, and ghee. Sprinkle it with crushed cardamom, and stir gently. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Photo: Navara rice. Credit: Courtesy of Navara Eco Farm