Detours are always fun. On a drive from Chettinad in Tamil Nadu to Pondicherry, I stopped to shoot pictures of an imposing Karuppasami on the outskirts of a village near Pudukkotai. These larger-than-life statues are usually at the entrance of a village and are regarded as custodians of the village. It was also here that I learned about the tradition of the mapillai kal or the illavata kal. You might have heard about contests that surround a Swayam Vara, but it is unlikely you would know about this contest from Tamil Nadu where men had to lift a spherical stone to win the hand of the bride.
I didn’t even attempt to carry the stone when the village headman informed me that it’s likely to weigh about 110 kg. That’s certainly heavier than what I’m used to lifting during weight training routines at my gym. The lifting of the Illavata Kal is still a sport that you will find at a few villages in Tamil Nadu during Pongal festivities in January. So, just like Popeye needed spinach for strength what did the potential suitors need to ace their weightlifting game? The same village headman told me about the secret ingredient back then – a red grain rice called Mapillai (translates to bridegroom) Samba. Many of these suitors spent weeks on a diet of a special kanji (porridge) made with this heritage rice varietal that is rich in minerals and nutrients.
The Cauvery delta region has long been considered Tamil Nadu’s rice bowl. This is one of oldest zones for rice cultivation anywhere in the world and is steeped in legends that celebrate Tamil Nadu’s staple. Rice is more than just a crop here; it’s held in reverence and the state’s farmers continue to be celebrated in popular culture. A line in my father’s family was involved in rice cultivation in the delta region in Umbalapadi near Thanjavur. On my last visit to Thanjavur, I sat down with Satish the General Manager at Great Trails Resort, a riverside retreat located on the banks of the Vennar River a distributary of the iconic Cauvery River. Our conversation drifted to the region’s rich rice cultivation heritage. He directed me to Nanban Farm Products which typifies Tamil Nadu’s rediscovery of traditional ingredients and rice varietals.
Nanban is one of many organisations across the state that have gone back to sustainable or organic farming. Many outfits like Chennai-based Sempulan (CIKS) work with local farmers to grow and process traditional rice varietals that began to disappear from the state in the 1970s and 80s. It was at Nanban that I picked up my last batch of Mapillai samba rice which has now become my favourite rice varietal. Mapillai translates to bridegroom while the Samba suffix refers to the samba season (typically harvested in January).
The legends around the stone lifting competitions highlight the stamina levels this rice is believed to provide. It’s high in fibre content that aids digestion and is also known to boost immunity, a wellness attribute that we’ve all started taking seriously in a post-pandemic world. Mapillai samba boasts of a lower glycaemic index (typically 66-70) compared to polished white rice making it more suitable for diabetics. In terms of minerals, it is high in potassium, iron, magnesium and phosphorous.
Aside from its multiple health benefits, this glutinous red rice with chewy textures is a great substitute for white rice in idli or dosa batter. You can also use it in Appam batter instead of white rice; the result: appams with a gorgeous pink shade. You can also combine it with poha (aval in Tamil) for a nutritious aval appam. I substituted standard ponni white rice with mapillai samba for a chilled curd rice – a great summer option, and the textures of this rice added a great dimension. You can try this easy recipe at home
Mapillai Samba curd rice
- Mapillai samba rice: 2 cups
- Grated cucumber: half cup (optional)
- Coriander leaves (garnish)
- For seasoning/tempering:
- A few cashew nuts broken into small pieces
- 1-2 red chillies
- Mustard: half teaspoon
- Urad dal: 1 teaspoon
- A few curry leaves
- Finely cut ginger (to taste)
- Cook the rice (12 minutes on a low flame once you hear the first whistle on the pressure cooker). While some home chefs soak the rice for an hour or overnight, I believe that it’s best not to soak it to retain the nutrients.
- Temper the ingredients with a small teaspoon of ghee.
- Mix with the rice.
- Whisk the curd with salt (to taste) and add to the rice.
- Mix well before you add the coriander for garnish.
- You could blend in the grated cucumber for extra crunch and extra cooling for the summer.
About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie – a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.