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Save the paddy fields

Save the paddy fields

Traditional paddy species such as Pokhareli Jetho Budo, Pahele, and Zhinua, which grow on the banks of various lakes in Pokhara, are disappearing. As a proud Pokhreli, this is sad news. Our beloved Jetho Budo rice and the Pokhreli Masina, also known as Pahele due to its yellowish hue, are heirloom rice varieties that are a heritage of Pokhara and surrounding areas of western Nepal. Heirloom varieties like Pokhreli Masina are living artifacts, passed down through generations. They aren’t just plants but reservoirs of genetic diversity, preserving the agricultural history of their regions.

According to news reports, varieties such as Rato Anadi, Ekle, Byrni, Black Jhinua, Samudra Finja, Navho, Anga, Bale, Krishnabhog, Jirasari, Phalangkote Paddy, Kathe Gurdi, Tauli, Phalo, Pahle, Lahe Gurdi, Ghaiya, Kalo Jhinuva, Mala, Vimmerfool, Bhatte, Andhere, Kande, Kalo Byrni, and Kalo Anadi have already vanished from Pokhara. Fifty varieties of local rice used to be grown in Kaski. Kathmandu, 30 years ago, was full of paddy fields, but it has now been converted into a concrete jungle. Pokhara is moving in the same direction.

Rice, one of the world’s oldest and most essential crops, has a history as rich as its nutritional value. While it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when humans first realized the rice plant was a food source, many historians believe that rice was cultivated as far back as 5000 years BC. Archaeologists excavating in India discovered rice grains dating to 4530 BC, marking some of the earliest known instances of rice cultivation.

When my family moved to Malekhu, we discovered another aromatic rice variety called Manobhog. This rice was similar to Pahele, with a fragrant aroma that would fill the entire street during cooking, especially in the mornings as everyone prepared lunch. Later, I learned about Marsi Rice from Rolpa and the prestigious Samundra Phini Rice from Nuwakot, once reserved for the aristocracy and royals of Nepal. This rice was a traditional gift for Rana maharajas, symbolizing its high value.

Cooking rice is a simple process that typically involves one kg of rice and two liters of water. In Nepal, we enjoy rice in various forms such as steamed rice, pulao, kheer, chamre, puwa, bhuja, chiura, latte, chiura dhakani, selroti, and chatamari. Idli, a rice pancake, is also gaining popularity as a healthy breakfast option.

Rice has played a significant role in my professional life as well. During the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar, under my leadership, we cooked around 22,000 kg of rice in 24 hours. Another memorable event was cooking 1,600 kg of raw rice (equivalent to 4,800 kg of cooked rice) for a Formula One event in Las Vegas in 2023. On average, a portion of rice is about 120 grams per person. Based in London, my team and I cook about 800 kg of rice daily for high-end airlines at Heathrow, serving approximately 24,000 portions each day.

Rice’s journey from wild seed to global staple spans thousands of years and numerous continents. It likely began in the Yangtze River basin of China between 13,500 and 8,200 years ago, later spreading throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. Today, rice is the most consumed cereal grain globally, with Asia leading the way. China and India are the top consumers, with rice forming the basis of most meals in these regions.

The diversity of rice is immense, with varieties suited to different tastes and culinary applications. Indica rice, known for its slender grains, is popular in Asia and Africa, while Japonica rice, with its short, sticky grains, is favored for sushi and other dishes in East Asia. Brown rice, with its bran intact, offers additional fiber, vitamins, and minerals compared to white rice, which, when consumed in excess, can contribute to health issues like diabetes.

Rice’s importance extends beyond nutrition. It’s woven into the cultural fabric of many societies, featuring prominently in religious ceremonies and traditional dishes. The cultivation of rice has shaped landscapes and driven agricultural innovations such as advanced irrigation techniques.

Modern research on rice focuses on developing disease-resistant varieties, improving yields, and reducing the environmental impact of rice cultivation. The exploration of alternative starches and future food security scenarios is crucial in a world facing population growth and climate change.

In Nepal, rice was traditionally reserved for special occasions until 1980. Before then, staples like corn, maize, millet, and wheat were more commonly consumed. The introduction of varieties like Chaite Dhan or Ghaiya has diversified the agricultural landscape.

Returning to Pokhara, paddy cultivation has started to decrease due to increasing plotting in areas like Biruwa Phant, Kundahar, and Lekhnath's Sishuwa and Patneri, where sufficient paddy used to be produced. According to a recent news report, Pokhara Metropolitan Municipality’s Agriculture Division has distributed nine thousand kilos of Pokhreli Jetho Budo, Pahele, Ramdhan, Khumal 10, Kalo Jhinuva, Ekle, Rato Anadi, and Byrni rice seeds this year with the aim of protecting and promoting local varieties. But if we don’t save the paddy fields, where are we going to plant these seeds?

Baral is a UK based R&D chef