Edible Archives at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Edible Archives collects the memories, folklore and traditions that surround indigenous rice varieties in India, at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Avantika Bhuyan meets the team behind this ambitious project.

At windswept Cabral Yard, near Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi, one can see different veins of history come together. There is the story of the yard itself, named after the Portuguese navigator, Pedro Alvares Cabral, who made the first shipment of merchandise from Cochin in 1500 AD. Within this historical structure, a different kind of heritage is being mapped — of memories, folklore and traditions, related to varieties of indigenous rice found across India. Led by four guest chefs — Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar, Kiran Bhushi, Prima Kurien and Priya Bala — the Edible Archives project seeks to widen the narrative around food, taking it beyond ideas of consumption. Instead, looking at food through the lens of ethnography, politics, reflection, and pleasure.

The focus, at the ongoing Kochi Muziris Biennale, where it is being showcased as an infra project, is on the rice bowl of India. The team has travelled extensively — from the hills of Niyamgiri to the coasts of Kerala — to look at indigenous varieties of rice that are now fast disappearing due to the domination of new hybrid varieties. Edible Archives isn’t a mere documentation of grains, but a sensorial journey through their histories, folklore, culinary traditions, weaving stories of local producers, personal memories, and the tactile associations of taste and texture. Two team members, Shalini Krishan and Manoj Parameswaran, are documenting the food culture and knowledge collected by the project.

Edible Archives at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

It started during Dastidar’s stint as a chef at Diva, when she would often travel through Japan and southeast Asia. “I saw the focus on provenance and quality of rice. At home too, I started collecting rice from all over the world, and at Diva, I began to introduce dishes around them, like the black rice risotto and Manipuri rice pudding,” she says. At a party, she met Anita Dube, curator of Kochi Muziris Biennale 2018. “Anita asked me to write down my ideas around the aesthetics of food, and food as an intellectual process. A historian friend pointed out how similar it was to building an archive.” That’s when Dastidar realised that each of us carry an edible archive within our bodies and minds. So, why not delve deep into these individual archives, and transform them into a collective sensory catalogue that belongs to all the people involved in growing, sourcing, cooking and eating the meal? The project slowly began taking root.

At Kochi, the team is showcasing 20 indigenous varieties, ranging from the kala bhaat from Bengal and the Bahurupi from Odisha to the kattuyanam from Tamil Nadu. As we speak, Dastidar is cooking with rajamudi rice, which has an interesting story behind it. The farmers would pay this rice as tax to the government. “It would go directly to the Maharaja of Mysore, who would eat this variety,” shares Dastidar. With each passing day, such fascinating stories and folklore are getting added to the archive. Another fascinating story comes from Dastidar’s own memory, of travelling with her uncle to Bishnupur as a teenager, to buy bricks. When they reached their destination, it was late and there was no place open for dinner. They ended up sharing a meal with brick factory workers from Bihar. A hodgepodge meal of small fish, caught earlier that day, local greens and rice, mixed with pungent mustard oil, garlic and green chillies that still stand out vividly in Dastidar’s mind. She drew on this memory for the curtain-raiser meal at Edible Archives, and added a few other ingredients typical to Bishnupur, pumpkins and quail eggs, putting together an unforgettable creation.

Edible Archives at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Edible Archives at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Edible Archives at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Edible Archives at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

On rare occasions, lullabies and poetry too, are added to this collection. The team recently discovered a Bengali lullaby that mentions three varieties of rice, and three different ways of preparing them: puffed rice made from binni paddy; the urki variety that can be coated in sugar and jaggery to make the sweet murki; and the parched rice, or chire in Bengali and chivda in Hindi, made from shali rice. The English translation of the lullaby goes something like this: “I’ll give you orchards of mango and jackfruit,
Take a walk in their shade,
And a fistful of sweet, soft murki
From the kennels of the urki,
To munch on your way.
Parched rice made with shali kernels,
Puffed rice from the binni kernels,
Nice plump Shabari bananas,
And rich yoghurt that I have strained.”

The idea is also to re-configure and re-contextualise a particular variety of rice. To do that, the team looks at various combinations and cooking techniques, to do them justice. “Sometimes we consciously try to achieve this, and at other times, it happens organically,” says Dastidar. Take for instance, the pairing of radha tilok — a sweet-scented, gentle, small-grained rice from north Bengal — with the pungent flavours of pork, braised in chillies from Sikkim, and grilled vegetables. “Radha tilok has a very Vaishnav tradition. It is believed that this variety was favoured by Radha; hence the name. It is served sweet, as prasad at temples. By pairing it with meat, we expanded the notion around it,” says Krishan.

Chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar

Chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar

Over the past month, some combinations have taken us by surprise, but each one has been a sensorial fiesta. The sweetness of the chini atap rice has been juxtaposed against vegetables like brinjals, broad beans and chow chow. The dense, sticky kala bhat found perfect companions in creamy, mashed rajma, and together they form an earthy, risotto-like dish. The kattunayam, which means wild elephant, and grows tall and thick, with a network of intricate roots to resist droughts, has a low glycemic index and high level of antioxidants. This has been used in a light congee with vegetables, jackfruit seeds and fresh anchovies. And then there is the red thondi rice from Wayanad, with a nutty bite, which goes very well with dalle chillies from Sikkim, spiced buttermilk, raw bananas cooked with lentils, banana chips and meen vevichathu. Occasionally, two varieties are used together to create a unique rice bowl. For instance, chana dal and seeraga samba, a delicate, high-fibre, cumin-sized rice from Tamil Nadu, was complemented by a rustic kala bhat and curried yam. Both were eaten with okra cooked in mustard sauce, lololika pickle and papad. The team consciously chose to focus on regional dishes that have been under-represented by mainstream food culture.

However, getting these indigenous rice varieties to a large-scale event like the Biennale has been no mean feat. “While most of these varieties are deeply loved in their own small communities, there is no market distribution for them as there is no large-scale demand. We found some at local haats. Often, a particular rice variety was grown only within a particular region, and sometimes by just one or two farmers within that region, and nowhere else.” says Krishan. But Dastidar is taking these challenges in her stride. She hopes to take Edible Archives into its next chapter and is already planning extensive travels. “But these too will be centred around rice. I know where I want to go, and which farmers to speak with. I now have direction,” she says.  

Avantika Bhuyan is a Delhi-based journalist, who has been writing on food and culture for more than a decade now. She likes to explore stories, which have been lying hidden within the diverse communities and subcultures across India.