Himalayan red rice is red hot
Jumla’s marsi red rice earned some notoriety in 2018 after a photograph went viral on social media of Prime Minister K P Oli and Premier-in-waiting Pushpa Kamal Dahal tucking in a lavish meal.
At the table with plates of red rice was business tycoon Durga Prasai, and the image made marsi synonymous with political cronyism. However, all the free publicity also boosted demand for Jumla’s red rice in Kathmandu, where the government last month recognised it as a local brand.
Marsi was brought under the government’s food trade management last month, and is being lifted in bulk by the government from farmers in Jumla to be sold in Kathmandu. Its price is fixed at Rs225 per kg, and all this has turned out to be good news for farmers of Jumla and Sinja valleys, known for the highest altitude where rice is cultivated in the world.
Red rice used to be sold only by businesses that promoted organic products in Kathmandu, but thanks to all the publicity, marsi has gone mainstream. It is now packaged and sold in supermarkets, or home delivered at up to Rs300 per kg.
All this is also good news for consumers since red rice has much greater nutritional value than polished white rice. Himalayan red rice is pigmented and is packed with flavonoid antioxidants, protein and fibre, making it much more suitable than white rice also for those with cardio-vascular disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity.
Most of the nutrients in grains of red rice are contained in the bran which gives it a nutty flavour, and the rice is eaten unhulled so as not to lose its most wholesome part. In white rice, the healthy bran is removed and most of what remains is carbohydrate.
"Marsi is the highest cultivated rice in the world at above 3000m, and takes almost nine months to harvest,” explains rice expert Rajendra Uprety. “It is not mass-produced like other types of rice, and the environment it is grown in and the absence of pesticides makes it very healthy. The only fertiliser used is manure.”
Here in Sinja and Jumla, spring has arrived and with it the preparation of the once-frozen terraces for this year’s rice crop. There is no need to wait for rain here since there is plenty of water for irrigation from the Tila and Hima rivers which are swollen with snowmelt.
Shanta Kumai is waiting at the local watermill to get her millet harvest pounded into flour. “I’m expecting my son to visit soon. Men, from most of the families have migrated down to the plains for work, but they come home when it is time to plant the marsi,” she says.
While much of the farm work is now done by women, they wait for the men to help with the ploughing of the fields. Seasonal migration for employment has been one of the main means of making an income for the men in Sinja, but come March-April, they return home to renew the annual agricultural cycle of planting marsi rice, before leaving for their jobs again.
Women pounding marsi is a common sight in the villages of Jumla district. Reddish-brown when harvested, the glutinous grains take a lightly purplish texture when cooked, and retains its nutritious ingredients.
Dal Bahadur Buda, 45, owner of an eatery in Gothijyula Bazar in Sinja says he has noticed a sudden spurt in buyers of marsi rice.
"Previously, visitors would buy beans, apples, potatoes, local medicinal herbs and tea. But these days, the demand for marsi rice has picked up,” he says. “In the past, we were tempted by what Kathmandu ate and we always used to wonder what white rice tasted like. But after getting to know the health benefits of marsi, we have gone back to our own red rice.”
Pankali Budha, 49, from nearby Okharpata village also has childhood memories of the smell and taste of red rice. She would tag along with her father to Mugu when she was young to trade the family’s marsi crop.
"Many local shepherds walk to Mugu and to the Chinese border to sell the rice. There used to be interpreters who helped us barter our rice, potatoes, beans and sheep for salt, spices and blankets from China,” she remembers.
Those days are over, and with the Karnali Highway all the publicity surrounding marsi and a more health-conscious population, means red rice has a ready market in Kathmandu and other cities.
Even while red rice has leaped from Twitter to farmers’ markets in Kathmandu to become a nationally recognised food item, there is still no market system or infrastructure in place in Jumla for farmers to sell the rice.
The growing popularity of the marsi has also created the possibility of a new source of income for the people of Jumla. But, as is often the case, the farmers who actually grow the crop still get a small piece of the pie.
Still, the popularity of the marsi rice has lessened somewhat the demand in the Karnali and far-west for white rice, and the red variety is also bought by food-for-work agencies as wages for road-building labour.
Trader Sundar Upadhaya from Sinja says that since the region does not have to worry about pests because of its low temperature, storage of the crop has not been a hassle so far. But putting in a system to trade the local produce would make it easier for local farmers to promote the rice in the market.
True to the adage that all publicity is good publicity, businessman Durga Prasai has used the unsavoury reputation that red rice got after his viral photograph to launch his own Marsi Beer brand.
Prasai earned considerable notoriety after the photo of him having lunch with K P Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal at his home in Thimi went viral three years ago, and people even started teasing him as “Mr Marsi”.
Prasai decided to turn this to his advantage by building a brand around marsi to rehabilitate the goodness of red rice as well as his own name. He bought a brewery in Nawalparasi for Rs4 billion, and went from ‘lunch to launch’ by selling the bottles in the market. The beer is said to be made from 70% barley and 30% red rice.
Prasai had organised the lunch to mediate the final negotiations for the merger of the Maoist Centre led by Dahal and Oli’s UML. The electoral alliance of the two parties propelled them to victory and the unified Nepal Communist Party had a near two-thirds majority in Parliament.
However, things soon went sour between Dahal and Oli until the Supreme Court ruled on 7 March that the NCP should be disbanded into the Maoist Centre and UML again. Since then, Prasai has been seen to be hedging his bets with Oli, and even got the prime minister to inaugurate his cancer hospital in Birtamod. Oli assured Prasai publicly that his B&C Teaching Hospital would soon get affiliation from Kathmandu University.