Several years ago a rather pompous man from the Ministry of Agriculture said to me, and I quote: "Agriculture is our Big Success Story." At that time, as is the case now, the farmer with less than 2 acres had a hard time surviving, people in rain dry areas had no access to irrigation (and no plans were being made to improve the situation), rural debt was shocking while the government was subsidizing rich farmers in Punjab who had lost (or were presumed to have lost) their crops because of untimely rains, and other injustices of life in the rural areas continued. I guess the official concerned considered his success in the ministry enough to call the whole business wonderful. I suspect that he never ventured too far from his white Ambassador car when on duty in the districts, and probably made his assumptions by toting up statistics in his office in New Delhi - where the really hot issue being debated was the number of chairs allotted to one official's room at the cost of another.
Venturing to put forward another view, based on my own experiences in rural areas - which by then had spanned several states - I said several things to the contrary, but his broad jaw set, and his loud pronouncements made me realise the hopelessness of discussion. I decided to let him keep his fantasy.
It seems to me that survival as an agriculturist or a tribal in India is a matter of ingenuity, and this, at least, is not lacking in our rural poor.They have found many edible plants and seeds that grow in adverse conditions, and which form part of their diet. As a result, these plants are now actually cultivated in places where they do not grow wild or in abundance. In several other countries these grasses and plants are mowed down and destroyed as weeds. In India the discovery of their edibility has led, happily, to the preservation of a biodiversity - one that often seems threatened by the vast plans and prophecies of our men and women in the armchairs of power.
One such food is known here in Marathi as Vari Tandul, Bhagar or Kodri. It is the seed of a grass ( Echinochloa Colonum) which frequently grows amongst the rice paddy as it requires damp, or even waterlogged, soil. Instead of removing it with weedkiller, farmers harvest it. When cooked, it makes a tasty and filling meal. Tandul means rice and though Vari is not a grain it provides the nourishment and energy that rice does. In the west it is called 'Samo' or 'jungle rice'.
Traditionally it is eaten during fasts because grains are taboo during that time. So Rajgira - another type of grass seed - and Bhagar are cooked instead of rice or wheat, as they are just as filling.
I am against fasts on principle as they are so gender-based. Women are the ones who fast and they do so for the good of the family, to ward off bad times and difficulties. So they are blamed for what happens and what could happen too - as long as it is bad. If it's good, then by god, it must be a man's work. I mean, what about events brought on by the stupidity of some men? So, no.... fasting is just not up my street. Especially when it has been scientifically proven that in rural areas around Pune, women have a significantly lower body weight than men. This is to the detriment of their health and usually occurs because they fast, too stringently and too often.
That said, Varicha Tandul is quite delicious, and the following recipe will prove it. Don't fast - just eat it.
Makes 2 servings
- 1/2 cups Vari Tandul, Bhagar, Samo
- 1 tbsp. ghee or vegetable oil
- 1/2 tbsp. jeera / cumin
- 3 green chillies, chopped fine
- 1 1/2 cups boiling water
- 1 small potato or sweet potato, grated
- 1 tsp. grated gur / jaggery or 1/2 tsp. sugar
- 1/2 cup roasted peanuts, broken into fine bits
- 2 tsps. lime juice
- 1 tbsp. grated coconut ( optional)
- 2 tbsp. chopped green coriander.
Heat the ghee in a kadhai. When hot put on the cumin and green chillies. Saute for a few seconds while the cumin splutters. Now add the seeds and saute for a minute stirring frequently. Add boiling water, the grated potato (or sweet potato) sugar and salt. Stir well. Cover tight and cook on low heat till the water has almost been completely absorbed . Add the lime juice and stir. Now add the ground peanuts and stir well. Cook for another minute or two . Garnish with coconut and green coriander and serve. Delicious with dahi / yogurt and any green vegetable.