Dinajpur district in West Bengal is renowned for its indigenous rice diversity finding mention in many important scriptural texts dating back to 1100 C.E. One of the oldest native varieties found here is Tulaipanji or Tulai that has been cultivated for centuries with traditional methods. Folk songs glorifying this scented rice, its cultivation practices and harvesting have been passed down generations and have slowly found their way into the new-age music.
Tulaipanji derives its name from tulan or tulashali which means aromatic and soft like cotton. This rice is cultivated in the two districts of Dinajpur (about 8000 hectares) and along the foothills of the Himalayas (Siliguri sub-division) in Darjeeling district.
According to the locals, this rice was gifted to a poor farmer by the Lord Himself and is revered as ‘Bhagawan ka Prasad’. It is said that two guests arrived at Basudev’s hut one day and asked for food and water. The poor farmer knew that he would be unable to serve sufficient food to his hungry guests and prayed to the Lord. Suddenly, the surrounding mud houses caught fire. Basudev used the water he had brought for his guests to douse the fire. The neighbours were astonished seeing Basudev extinguishing the raging fire with just a pot of water. Thinking that he had some divine power, they came rushing to his house.
Basudev asked his wife to bring another pot of water to serve the guests. Suddenly, an Ākāśavāni (celestial announcement) resounded through the hut, “I am pleased with your service and hospitality to your guests. What do you want Basudev?”
Basudev was overcome with joy and said, “Dear Lord. We are hungry and we want food.” The Celestial Voice said, “Ok. Pour a pot of water in the soil. Aromatic rice will spring forth and people will come from far to your home.” Basudev did as he had been instructed and lo! the whole area became a field of Tulai rice with its heady aroma spreading across the villages.
The fragrance of Tulaipanji is indeed so strong that this variety of rice is considered to be one of the best aromatic indigenous rice varieties in India. Both the raw and parboiled rice retain their aroma up to a year which is a very rare quality. Tulaipanji is generally used as parboiled rice but raw rice is also consumed to some extent.
Tulaipanji is cultivated with the South-West monsoon after the pre-kharif jute crop as it is photosensitive. The optimum sowing time is from the end of Aasahr to second week of Shravana in the Bengali calendar. It is a common practice to dry the rice that will be used as seed in the next season and store them in straw bags on bamboo ledges above the ground. Farmers say that the right amount of moisture, soil health and fertility determine the quality of Tulaipanji.
Centuries-old methods of tilling the land, preparing the land, seed broadcasting, transplanting to the main field, irrigation, use of organic fertilizers, threshing and storage are only adopted. This has helped to retain the consistency of the grain, yield per hectare and overall produce.
Tulai grains are whitish-yellow in colour and short-slender in appearance that is typical of the rice varieties grown in certain pockets of West Bengal. Cooked rice is non-sticky in texture, bright in appearance and delicious to taste. As this rice is grown using native methods, it has high hulling percentage, milling percentage, protein content, good head rice recovery, high disease-pest resistance, intermediate alkali value and gelatinization temperature that makes it extremely desirable.
It is commonly used to prepare pulao, fried rice, biryani (with vegetables, chicken, mutton and pork as the heady aroma of the rice lends a flavoursome quality to the tender meat) and sweet dishes like pitha, payesh and other local delicacies.
Tulaipanji rice also known as ‘Basmati of North Bengal’ was granted the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2017.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
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