Sunday, September 26, 2021

Standing Tall with Pokkali

 By Yamini Vijayan & Thomas Zacharias 

After returning to the coastal village that he grew up in, former RAW chief Hormis Tharakan revived his family’s paddy fields by growing Pokkali—a local and resilient rice.

Hormis Tharakan had imagined spending his post-retirement years reading and writing in Olavipe, the lush village in Kerala where he grew up. “I like to quote John Donne who said age becomes ‘loveliest at the latest day’,” he told me over an email. In 2014, the former RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) chief moved back to his family home in the district of Alappuzha with his wife Molly.  But instead of spending all his time with books, he started tending to Thekkanatt, his ancestral farm.

Photo by Thomas Zacharias

On a warm and muggy day, my cousin Aswathy (Molly’s niece) and I set out for Thekkanatt Farms, an hour’s drive from Kochi. Located by the backwaters, it is exactly as you might imagine a farm in coastal Kerala—paddy fields soaked in water, an air of serenity and every shade of green. We were shown around the vast fields by Hormis and Toshiba, the farm supervisor, as we tried to take in everything: the history of the farm, failed experiments, successful ones, the sky in the water, the grass beneath our feet. 

Photo by Thekkanatt Farms

Photo by Thekkanatt Farms

You’d think that someone like Hormis who has led big intelligence operations for the government might be a bit intimidating. On the contrary, when you meet him, he’s warm and mild-mannered, cracking an occasional joke between our conversations. 

Even though Hormis belongs to a family that has owned farms for generations (some of this land came to them over 200 years ago), running a farm definitely wasn’t familiar territory. But after five years of being deeply involved in the various aspects of farming, it’s apparent just how much progress he’s made — both in terms of knowledge, and quietly inspiring others in the community to consider pesticide-free farming. In fact, this year, he even won Krishi Bhavan’s Best Paddy Farmer award.

Photo by Thomas Zacharias

One Grain, One Fish

But farming in Alappuzha isn’t easy, and comes with its own unique challenges—in particular, to do with its proximity to the backwaters and excessive salinity in the water. Hormis told us that what really motivated him and gave him the confidence to revive his long-neglected paddy fields was the ‘Oru Nellum, Oru Meenum’ scheme. 

Roughly translating to One Grain, One Fish, this is a project run by the Aquaculture Development Agency of Kerala (ADAK) to encourage farmers to alternate between paddy and prawn farming in the same fields. Cultivating paddy alone was no longer lucrative in Kerala, and so rotating it with fish every six months made it more economical. 

The most interesting part of the Oru Nellum, Oru Meenum project is how it cleverly takes advantage of nature's cycle. During the monsoons, when water levels are high, saline-resistant paddy is planted and groomed. Once monsoon is over, and the salinity tends to be so high that paddy can no longer be grown, the focus shifts to stocking and growing prawn. Paddy stocks left over after harvesting are good natural feed for prawns, and the droppings of prawns are great for paddy.

Photo by Thomas Zacharias

Photo by Thomas Zacharias

The Buoyant Pokkali

At Thekkanatt, they grow Pokkali rice (a variety called Chettiviruppu) alongside tiger prawns. Pokkali is ideal in these regions because of its resistance to salinity and grows up to 1.5 metres, surviving even the high tide. In fact, ‘pokkam’ in Malayalam means height and ‘aali’ signifies rising like a flame. The name Pokkali was derived from this. A common misconception, however, is that Pokkali is the variety of rice, when in fact it is actually a specific method of paddy cultivation. 

There are so many remarkable things about Pokkali, especially in the context of Alappuzha where farmers struggle with high water levels and salinity in their fields. While speaking of some of these challenges, Toshiba said something that stayed with me. “Because it’s Pokkali, no matter how low it lies, it eventually surfaces,” she told us. And this matters because it is this resilience that sets Pokkali apart, especially in a warming world with unpredictable weather patterns. 

Photo by Thekkanatt Farms

With Oru Nellum, Oru Meenum as well, the aim has been not only to offer a steady source of income for local farmers, but also to combat climate change. The green revolution is considered by many experts to have been responsible for the loss of many of our diverse heirloom rice varieties. And in a sense, there seems to be a return to some of our old ways and hardier grains. In fact, attempts to conserve indigenous rice varieties are now being made across India — like Basudha’s remarkable work in West Bengal, and the fragrant Tilak Chandran in Uttar Pradesh

And while there are extraordinary stories like these of hope and resistance, it is also important to acknowledge ground realities. That farming isn’t seen as a viable career option in Kerala at present. That even for a farm-owner like Hormis, subsidies and incentives from the government was what proved to be the motivation to pursue farming. That despite his determination and patience, Hormis has been able to sell only a fraction of his harvest in the last 6 to 8 months. That rise in temperatures and floods will continue to impact our farmers. 

As we witness and experience the effects of climate change on farming and food, it’s made me think about how vital it is for us to cultivate a stronger and deeper relationship with what we eat. For me, a good place to begin is to just be curious and open to learning about what we consume, and what’s good for our planet. There is something so powerful and moving about seeing the source of our food up close, and talking to the people who grow it. It makes you realise how much care and effort goes into every step along the way, before we pick it off a shelf, or it lands on our doorstep. 

Photo by Thomas Zacharias

Our visit to Thekkanatt Farms ended in an elaborate and flavourful meal. It was Tharakan’s wife Molly’s birthday, and to celebrate it in this way felt rather special. There was Pokkali, showing off its versatility: as rice, appam, idiyappam and puttu. The colour of the rice—almost purple— was stunning. And the flavour of the rice shone through in each avatar, more pronounced and earthy than the white rice that we’ve gotten used to eating. 

Spending the day at the farm, understanding the labour involved in producing a high-quality grain, and interacting with the people behind it not only gave me a deeper sense of respect for them, but actually made the experience of eating this rice an intensely gratifying and delicious one.

Photo by Thomas Zacharias

If you would like to purchase this Pokkali rice from Thekkanatt Farms, you can click on the link below and order the same. There are only a 100 kilos of dehusked Pokkali rice to sell, so don’t forget to make your purchase quickly before it runs out!

Link to buy -

UPDATE : We sold out of the rice within hours of this going live, but don't fret. More is on the way. Thekkanatt Farms will have their next harvest ready by first week of November. If you are interested in signing up for the waitlist, please email me at

While there are numerous reasons why I want to help the folks at Thekkanatt Farms sell the Pokkali rice, here are some of them.

  1. Pokkali is an indigenous rice from Kerala. As our world warms, we need to do as much as we can to conserve local and heirloom varieties. 

  2. Pokkali is not only saline-resistant, but also climate-adaptive—it has the ability to resist sea erosion and weather floods. 

  3. At Thekkanatt, they farm organically, without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. 

  4. As an ingredient, Pokkali is not only wholesome and flavourful but also versatile in its culinary applications.

  5. As a chef, I’m always looking for ways to support people and organisations that are doing good through food. After having visited Thekkanatt, I’m all the more excited to help draw attention to the resilient Pokkali.

(With inputs from Hormis Tharakan, Molly Tharakan, Toshiba Sunil, Rijomon Kareethara, Siju Edathara, Tomy Mathew)

Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Time is Ripe for a Food Waste Revolution

 This article was originally published in a slightly abridged version in the op-ed page of The Indian Express, dated 7th April 2021 under the title 'Portion Control'. Click here for the online version of the same piece.

Recently, on a food research trip to the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, I was privy to a rather extraordinary traditional ritual. The entire mountain village of Satta in Tons Valley came together on a cold winter morning to slaughter, cook and honour a goat they had partaken in raising for close to a year. Every part of the animal from head to tail—including its skin, internal organs and even the blood — was turned into something useful or delicious. Nothing was wasted. The community’s frugality is in stark contrast to how meat is consumed in most parts of urban India today, where the prime cuts usually prized.

The same prudence can be observed even when you hark back to the way our parents and grandparents approached food and cooking in the past. I clearly remember my grandmother’s fluffy bread upma made from upcycling leftover loaves the next day, or relishing her chakkakuru ularthiyathu, a deliciously, nutty Kerala-style stir fry made with the seeds of ripe jackfruit which would otherwise have been thrown away.

The problem of food waste is a relatively modern one. India is an ancient civilisation and we, as a society, have been prudent about our source of sustenance for millennia. Yet somewhere along the way, we lost sight of this ‘waste not, want not’ mentality.

Nearly 40% of the food produced in India is wasted every year due to fragmented food systems and inefficient supply chains — a figure estimated by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. This is the loss that occurs even before the food reaches the consumer.

Simultaneously, there is a significant amount of food waste generated in our homes. Globally, 61% of total food waste is attributed to households, according to the Food Waste Index Report 2021 published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The same report estimates that a staggering 50 kilograms of food is thrown away per person every year in Indian homes.

This excess food waste conventionally ends up in landfill, creating potent greenhouse gases which have dire implications on the climate. Meanwhile the ‘woke’ among us continue to be greenwashed into amassing more ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ products than we really need.

This blatant irony has been plaguing our food system for decades, and worsening with time. It was only until the crippling COVID-19 pandemic came along in 2020 that many of us began taking note. Affluent Indians were suddenly inconvenienced by things otherwise taken for granted, like procuring groceries or worrying about how long their supplies would last. We came to realise that the food we eat goes far beyond the few bites it takes for us to finish it. We started becoming more conscious of our food choices.

The pandemic not only exposed the problems pivoting on food waste but also compounded them. In the wake of the lockdown imposed in March last year, surplus stocks of grain hoarded by the government — pegged at 65 lakh tonnes in the first four months of 2020 — continued to rot in godowns across India. Access to food became extremely scarce for the poor, especially the daily-wage labourers. Although essential commodities were exempt from movement restrictions, farmers across the country struggled to access markets, resulting in tonnes of food waste. Meanwhile, instinctive hoarding by the middle class disrupted the value chain, further aggravating the conundrum.

So how can we, as individuals, bring about change? The astonishing statistics of food waste attributed to households and their irresponsible consumption patterns means that change needs to begin in our own homes.  Calculated purchasing when buying groceries, minimising single-use packaging wherever possible, ordering consciously from restaurants, and reconsidering extravagant buffet spreads at weddings can go a long way. At the community level, one can identify and get involved with organisations such as Coimbatore-based No Food Waste which aims to redistribute excess food — especially from weddings and events — to feed the needy and hungry.

A strong sense of judiciousness in how we consume our food is the next logical step. We must attempt to change our ‘food abundance’ mindset to a ‘food scarcity’ one, slowly working our way towards a zero-waste end goal. And for the food that is left behind? Feed someone else or, at the very least, compost it so it doesn’t end up in landfill.

Be open to incorporating nose-to-tail cooking when it comes to meat and seafood (fish head makes a fantastic curry so don’t throw it away!). Moreover, the roots, shoots, leaves and stalks of most vegetables are perfectly edible. Regional Indian recipes like surnoli, a Mangalorean dosa made with watermelon rind, or gobhi danthal sabzi made with cauliflower stalks and leaves in Punjab, are born out of the ideas of frugality and respect for our food. The Bengalis adopt a root-to-shoot philosophy throughout their cuisine — thor ghonto  is a curry comprising tender banana stems, while ucche pata bora  are fritters made with bitter gourd leaves.

You can start with influencing simple decisions about food consumption in your own home, and then get people in your immediate community to join through the power and reach of social media. Acquainting oneself with and supporting initiatives proactively working towards reducing food waste, and encouraging others to do the same, is yet another way to disseminate awareness.

Adrish, India’s first chain of zero-waste concept stores opened in 2018 and has a presence in Mumbai, Pune and Delhi, with more cities on the horizon. Focused on getting people to shift from harmful, artificial consumption to an eco-friendly, zero-waste lifestyle, they believe this is achievable by providing sustainable and biodegradable alternatives — ingredients and products sold in reusable packaging while supporting marginal farmers and artists. Incidentally, the word ‘adrish’ translates to ‘mirror’. And a long, hard look at ourselves and the way we consume is perhaps what we need right now to begin making even a small difference.