It is a sweltering afternoon in Curtorim, South Goa, and Santano Rodrigues is arguing with his friends over when to eat lunch. He’s spent all morning supervising machinery and inspecting large mounds of grain with farmers, and he is now zipping around the office he shares with the village library. He is looking through maps, making lists, as the others in the room converge around a table with noodles and bottles of lemonade.
“He never eats!” his friend Michaela Pais tells me. “No time for wasting,” he shouts back. “My mother, she eats for me!”
Rodrigues’s restlessness is not misplaced. It is an important day, one that he’s been anticipating for months. Rodrigues is overseeing the inauguration of a new mechanism, a metal rice boiler two agriculture students developed. He hopes the boiler will become a new harvest ritual in the village. In Curtorim, rice grains, especially those of indigenous varieties, need to be plucked, sorted, threshed, and then boiled for the skin to separate from the grain, after which they are stored. This process is usually done in metal pots on wood fire and supervised during the process. The new boiler is designed to ease these tasks, the students tell us onlookers. A large barrel with an inbuilt electrical drainage system, the instrument, which is two hundred liters in size, can boil ninety kilograms of harvested rice at once, requiring less water and labor and keeping farmers from the hazards of wood fire and coal. “Now no one can make excuses!” Rodrigues says.
As the young men set up the boiler in the yellow courtyard, Rodrigues ushers in a group that he introduces as the Curtorim Biodiversity Management Committee. Elderly locals sit down to drink tea and eat samosas, and the room brightens with noise. An English schoolteacher from the village tells me a story about a determined millipede who counts its legs every day. “Santano,” he says to me, “he is our millipede.”
I watch Rodrigues as Pais pours large quantities of rice into the boiler. He looks nervous. “If it spoils, I am to blame,” he frets. The others are optimistic, clapping their hands in anticipation. Rodrigues won’t stop chewing his nails. Pritesh Mayekar, one of the students who set up the boiler, tells me that Rodrigues chased him for months to inaugurate the device. “Uncle really pushed us to finish,” he says with a shrug. “Young people don’t farm that much. It’s still people my parents’ age. He wants to make things easy for them.”
Curtorim is a predominantly rice-farming village, sometimes known as the “Granary of Salcette” due to its history of rice production. Rice is a culture here, not merely a livelihood, grown over several systems of land and irrigation that have been sustained over centuries. In Goa, rice is grown in morod (or uplands), kherlands (midlands), and khazans (low-lying wetlands), the most challenging to farm. As we wait for the rice to boil, Rodrigues rolls down a wall-size map of the village’s various land systems, and Pais points to the khazans: seven in all, both big and small.
“This is the wisdom of our ancestors,” she says. “You will not find them anywhere else.” Then she points at me and says, “She has never seen them before,” and the others look at me with concern.
Khazans are predominantly rice and fish fields. They are formed out of reclaimed wetlands, salt marshes, and mangrove areas where constructed embankments and sluice gates regulate tidal influence and the influx of seawater. They are a heritage, but a dying one in a rapidly urbanizing Goa, whose rows of shark-faced villas and apartment complexes with swimming pools have replaced most of the area’s ancient trees and marine ecosystems. Swaths of gentrification have recently robbed the state—a tourism hot spot for decades—of its biodiversity. This has led to a direct assault on its agriculture and the diversity of both its farming systems and the crops themselves. For within each khazan exists its own special varieties of rice that have evolved over thousands of years to suit the sites. The predominant khazan variety found today is known as Korgut—a plump, brown grain resistant to salinity and nutritious to eat.
Rodrigues shakes his head when I ask if he plans to feed any Korgut into the boiler today. “It’s precious. I’m not going to put it in there,” he whispers, as if it were a secret that no one else knows.
It is Korgut that I came looking for in Curtorim. Khazans and their rice varieties had intrigued me when I first read about them in 2018. It struck me as miraculous that rice could be grown in saltwater. I wondered what it would taste like—would the rice itself be salty? And I wondered why agrarian cultures like these were sidelined for more cosmetic, aspirational food cultures.
When I first arrived, I drove around North Goa, asking farmers, supermarket workers, neighbors I met at tea stalls, whether they knew about it.
“Have you heard of Korgut?” I asked Sumana Kerkar, a farmer from whom I bought a pineapple every morning. “Of course,” she said, cutting the fruit’s large head and dropping it in my bag. “I grew up eating it. There are songs of Korgut, so many stories. It is the real rice. The Goan rice.”
Agriculture has been a mainstay in the region for centuries, and in every corner, a different climate, temperature, and soil quality establish what people have grown and what they can eat. During my time in Goa, locals would teach me to note the difference in climate and terrain. “Here you can see lilies, so it is sweet water, and we can grow green vegetables,” someone told me as I drank tea near a river. “Coconut grows there. The reddish soil is rich in aluminum,” a friend informed me as we drove around the region, rice fields giving way to hilly forests, covert rivers appearing and disappearing.
Hundreds of cues point out the complexities of ecological wealth in Goa. Every creek, river, and stream is drawn into local rituals and called by its name. Rice, too, is part of these anatomies. Although the primary food group of the region, rice is not homogenous. Through the history of Goa—perhaps all of India—it wasn’t a single grain that fed people but scores of varieties developed to meet the distinct demands of the region’s climates and terrains. Today, Goa has twenty-eight types of indigenous rice that can be patented and grown. However, in the last forty years, indigenous seeds like Korgut have been almost completely replaced with hybrid, high-yielding varieties such as Jyoti and Jaya, which now make up around 80 percent of all grains grown in the region. The remaining 20 percent includes other varieties, with khazan varieties forming a negligible percentage of what is farmed.
I’m discussing this with horticulturist Miguel Braganza, whom I meet one morning for coconut water and biscuits on his veranda in Mapusa. “If you cut me open right now, you would find rice, fish, and cashew,” he says. “This is what Goans are made of; it is what constitutes us.”
Braganza and I talk about the liberation of Goa, wherein Goa went from being a Portuguese territory to seceding to the Indian mainland in December 1961. Prior to that, an economic blockade on the region was enforced which means that food imports stopped. “Everyone, regardless of who they were, farmed,” Braganza remembers. His father, a teacher, would return home in the evening and tend to the fields. “Varieties of millets adapted to coarse rock: rice, finger millet, cowpea, horse gram,” he says. “Food was grown everywhere, so there would be no shortage.”
Braganza reminisces about rice dishes he ate as a young boy that have faded away over the years. “Kanji, or rice gruel, was a morning treat—we ate it with coconut or pickle,” he says. “Bhakris made from rice. Sweets like godshe, which is a dessert made from rice, jaggery, and lentils, a delicacy. But they would taste different. Indigenous Goan rice has tastes and textures of its own. We are now so used to milled, polished rice, many cannot tell the difference.”
Vince Costa, a filmmaker from Curtorim, tells something similar on the phone. “If you made a Goan rice cake with basmati, would that really be Goan?” he asks. “Would it taste anything like the rice cakes we eat, the same dish made with the food from the land?” Costa’s film Saxtticho Koddo is an effort to capture the contemporary rice cultivation in his hometown, and the processes and hierarchies involved in placing food on the Goan plate. Although Goan cooking may be simple, determined by agrarian appetites and robust flavors, it is anything but simplistic.
On Costa’s instructions, in the morning markets of the region, I started to ask about gaonti, the “food of the village,” which is produced in small farms and house gardens. Among gaonti are hundreds of varieties of yams, aubergines, and okra. Each home could have a mango that tastes different, each family a cashew tree distinct from the next. Gaonti is more expensive than genetically modified produce from neighboring Maharashtra, but these vegetables disappear before the sun rises on the bazaars. Locals flock to inquire about large pumpkins, frizzy yams, and sour tamarind pods the size of toddlers’ legs. I have to sprint to the markets at six a.m. when I want my share of gaonti, queuing up for a pumpkin variety I have become besotted with—creviced and wonky, a small vegetable sweeter than any I have eaten before.
Even as gaonti resists erasure, rice varieties have not managed the same feat. Indigenous rice seeds have begun to dwindle, and are almost nonexistent in the market. “We took it for granted,” Costa tells me, “which is why I started making this film. I wanted to document the multiplicity of what we have, and also who works for it.” Costa talks about how the new generation of Goans may not know the wealth of their own home; how farmers, though they form the backbone of the Goan economy, have been turned into scapegoats to support the tourism industry, pawns in the Technicolor dreams of Goa, in which the region becomes reduced to an object of desire. “Rice is an issue of land, and in Goa, land is volatile, land moves at an astounding pace,” he says. Biodiversity is a tricky concept—the lack of it is borne by the human desire for more, for plenty, for outside products, for aspirational foods. “There are many cultures of greed at play here. And they destroy the abundance that may be right in front of us, at our doorstep.”
Back in Curtorim, Rodrigues and a farmer named Alan Menezes wait for their friend Matthew Oliveiro on a road swathed on both sides by fields. They look at me gravely when we disembark our scooters. Rodrigues tuts at me in annoyance. It is the middle of the afternoon, and the temperatures have risen. I stare at the large piece of land in front of us, flat as an iron slab. Somewhere around us, I smell water. Before I understand why Rodrigues is upset, Oliveiro arrives, greeting me with dazzling familiarity. “Hello, Miss!” he says in Konkani with his hands spread apart. “Welcome to the khazans!”
“Where are they?” I say brightly.
“What do you mean, where?” he asks, laughing. “You’re on them!”
“City people,” Rodrigues says, making sure I am in earshot. “Always looking ahead, never around.”
As we walk, I notice the landscape in front of us, my brain taking its own time to adjust to the breadth of it. The flatland is guarded at the back by mangroves. Behind it lies the River Zuari, which I can now hear and smell. Khazans constitute agricultural lands, Oliveiro tells me, slightly elevated by mero, inner embankments made of mud, straw, and bamboo poles that prevent the fields from eroding. They are protected by bundhs, outer embankments guarded by mangroves that act as natural tide breakers. The architecture regulates the movement of water around the farms, channeling it by way of manos, or sluice gates. The manos are made with the wood of matti, a local tree that is resilient to water erosion, and are positioned between the inner reservoir and the estuary.
“The manos are the most important,” Oliveiro says as we approach one, “which is why you will see that they are guarded by a shrine.” There is water on both sides of the gates. On one side is high tide, Oliveiro tells me, where the water is deeper, held in place to keep it from entering the fields. I try to refrain from banal questions, but they come anyway.
“Why is the water not released?” I ask.
“Because we were harvesting,” Oliveiro says. “Once the seeds have been planted, all this water will be sent their way.”
I hurry after the farmers as we pass by the dense foliage, the thicket of mangroves. I forgive myself for not recognizing the khazans. I expected farmlands, raised plateaus whose primary purpose is to grow food. But these lands where we stand are more than just farms—they are animal habitats, clusters of estuaries, the pit of a river, a hub of tropical trees. Here is the intersection of many things at once.
We keep walking as we reach another connecting khazan, where farmers work on a manual threshing machine. They put long stalks of rice under the wheel, separating the grain from the stalk. “Korgut is strong,” a farmer named Hipolito D’Costa tells me. “It doesn’t fall off that easily, so it really has to be yanked!”
But as hard as they’re working, none of this rice will reach the market. Traders only want polished rice, shiny long-grained rice that they can package and sell with ease. Korgut is harvested and stored in homes, distributed to families, sold to other villagers, kept for special treats to eat. “It is the food of our childhood,” D’Costa says. “This is what my parents ate.” He elaborates that, although he loves to eat Korgut, his children have no liking for it at all. “They want to eat sweets and masala food,” he says in resignation. “With the cultures of the land, appetites change as well.”
I ask about the intense labor involved in harvesting the rice, and why they keep farming it if it’s losing its appeal. “Nobody minds the work,” Oliveiro says. Rodrigues nods in agreement. “Farmwork is our heritage. It is not a burden. But the problem is, [farmers are given] no incentives from the government.”
We sit down for tea in the shade, where we talk about the “comunidade system,” a system of communal ownership that once allowed the local governments to own the khazans. The comunidades existed until legislation in 1961 transferred land to the tiller, making private ownership the default system. “Because of the migration of people outside Goa, people are able to sell land easily, which disrupts the khazans,” Rodrigues says.
But many like Costa caution me not to romanticize the systems that used to run through the comunidade. “The comunidade was efficient, but also profited elite castes and classes. It was not always democratic,” Costa had said. But Rodrigues iterates that coordination is important. “Which is why these khazans still run on a community-farming system. This way, gates, auctions, and other repairs are taken care of together,” he says. I learn that Korgut cannot be stored for more than one season, like many indigenous seeds, so it needs to be planted every year to preserve.
The farmers tell me about other varieties that have gone extinct—Shitto, Babri, and Patni—fat red and brown grains, sweet and starchy. When they ate them, they felt content and full. “Light, but filled up, like a balloon,” says D’Costa.
In Anjuna, North Goa, I walk through Shalini Krishan’s edible garden, a dense maze that she has grown outside the restaurant she runs with her partner, Chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar. The garden is part of Edible Archives, a restaurant and research project that started with Krishan and Ghosh Dastidar’s travels through the country, which involved studying and collecting indigenous varieties of rice grains. Through their travels, Ghosh Dastidar and Krishan have collected more than two hundred varieties of rice, including Kala Bhaat from Bengal and Ratna Chudi from Karnataka. Some of them are served at the restaurant, but as Krishan says, “Rice is not only a vehicle for cuisine. It is an heirloom. It holds the wisdom of generations that have passed.”
We are walking through their garden, plucking tiger-striped eggplants for lunch and talking about the varieties they have encountered—some medicinal, others nutritious, and others sweet rice varieties for desserts. “This is more like a forest!” I say, and Krishan laughs. “It may seem so,” she says, “but it’s all very planned. We had to make sure to place the seeds where they may flourish, situate them next to others that will not hamper their growth.” As we walk, Krishan plucks small red chilies and shows me the large leaves of her turmeric plants. “We try to disrupt people’s biases that are ingrained in their palate by changing their minds about indigenous foods. Slowly, we want to bring around a discussion as to how they eat,” Krishan says.
Suddenly she points at a small patch ahead of us. “There it is!” she says excitedly. Korgut! The thing that has held my attention for so long. It is a worthy participant in Krishan’s garden, a small haven of indigenous seeds that nestle among one another, determined to thrive. Krishan flings a stalk of Korgut across her shoulder like a light log of wood. I kneel down, studying its small grains that sit firmly on the stalk, and put a stray seed in my pocket by instinct.
We pluck a few more seeds and carry them to a small room, which the duo use as their office. “Because it is a khazan variety, I am not sure if it will grow here,” Krishan tells me. “But I want to try and propagate it so we have the seeds. We can store them and share with those who need or want to grow Korgut.” Ghosh Dastidar walks into the room in her chef’s apron. She picks up the grain and peers at it. “Indigenous grains have different shapes, and can also be different colors when they are harvested because they haven’t been homogenized,” she says.
As Ghosh Dastidar cooks us lunch, Krishan and I talk about the aftereffects of the Green Revolution, a set of technology transfers headed by American seed scientist Norman Borlaug, which industrialized the Indian agricultural system in the 1960s. The initiative looked to multiply production in the country by introducing foreign hybrid seeds and pesticide-based crop cultures to the subcontinent. Although quantities were increased, the mechanization of procedures pushed many indigenous seeds to the periphery. “It brought in a seed-and-crop culture that farmers did not understand,” she says.
With the liberalization of India in the 1990s, indigenous seeds further suffered, as the seed economy opened up to the rest of the world. Indigenous seeds like Korgut are simple to farm on the land that they have evolved with, but because of the lobbying for hybrid seeds by governments and foreign multinational corporations, they suffered and dwindled in number over the years. Salesmen advertise monocultural hybrids for their ability to yield almost double that of indigenous varieties. (Whereas Korgut yields 2 to 2.5 tons per hectare, Jaya and Jyoti will yield 4 to 4.5 tons in the same space.) However, hybrids are grown with a dependency on fertilizers, and also exhaust the land with their extractive natures of farming, whereas Indigenous farming cultures regard land health as central. “It made a cycle that was geared top-down,” says Krishan about the large-scale dependency on hybrid seeds. “One that disregarded the knowledge of farmers, and the futures of the lands,” she says.
Today, more than 100,000 rice varieties have been lost. “Think of basmati,” Krishan says. “Basmati comes from bas, meaning ‘scent.’ It was known for its scent. It had its own properties. Now the traditional basmati is rare; ‘basmati’ is simply shorthand for all long-grained, polished rice. The market has such a superficial understanding of our most important grain.”
“These are matters of yield, grain quality, ease, and availability,” rice scientist Shilpa Bhonsle tells me when I ask about the differences between hybrids and indigenous seeds. “Korgut is better for health, self-reliant,” she notes, calling it a “smart seed, able to fend for itself.” Bhonsle explains that heirloom seeds have an “awn,” a prickly needle on the end of the grain that keeps away insects and birds. Korgut can also grow to 1.5 meters, tall enough to resist flooding, whereas varieties such as Jaya and Jyoti stay shorter than knee height. I think back to something similar Rodrigues mentioned, quoting proudly from a news article on his phone: “In 2018,” he read, “during a flood in Chorão island in Goa, only Korgut survived. Scientists at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research are using Korgut to develop other resilient varieties.”
I think about the value of a grain like this in a world where seawater is rising and food security is threatened by the influx of salinity into soil. Seeds like Korgut will sustain us in our times of need.
Like Krishan, Ghosh Dastidar, and Bhonsle, many rice enthusiasts and scientists focus on the agricultural efficacy of the seed beyond its yield or flavor profile. To Bhonsle, Korgut matters for its genetic mechanisms. “It is not its taste that is important, but the land cultures that exist around it,” she says. Ghosh Dastidar will, in her own way, say a similar thing: “Even at the restaurant, I try to tell people that food is more than what appeals to the palate. Tastes are fickle, they change with the times.” Although those that fight for Korgut’s survival differ in their approaches, they are united in their loyalty to the rice’s survival. Krishan and Ghosh Dastidar aim to use varieties like Korgut to pervade the imagination of diners, and Bhonsle, in turn, believes that these varieties are irreplaceable for the future of all rice. “It is biodiversity we stand to lose,” she concludes. “Think about it like this: if all humans were wired the same way, wouldn’t COVID-19 have wiped us out by now? With rice, it is the same. It is important to maintain diverse varieties of food for our future. And the future is today. It is now.”
In the nearby town of Santa Cruz, environmentalist Tallulah D’Silva and I walk under a massive new highway built by the Goan government. “Where we are is the causeway,” D’Silva says, unable to hide her dismay even as she acknowledges the functionality of the looming structure. “It was built to connect the old capital to the new. It goes north to south, right through Panjim, Santa Cruz, and the villages of the center.” The highway is the largest I have ever seen, as if suspended from the skies with large ropes that light up in neon Technicolor in the evenings. It’s the kind of thing that humans build so they can be visible from the moon, I think, as we walk under it.
Panjim is an illustrious city, dotted with Portuguese buildings, beautiful restaurants, and busy historical squares where tourists take photographs and locals eat ice cream on church stairs. But D’Silva points out that the capital’s virtues are dependent on the ecosystems around it. “Goa has endured scarcity and climatic changes through centuries. Panjim was selected because of its position as a crucial port, and around it were systems that could guarantee food and livelihood. This worked in its favor when it was appointed the capital by the Portuguese,” she says.
We exit onto a small dirt road, and I’m taken aback by the sight of khazans in what I expected to be an urban cityscape. D’Silva points to salt pans in the beginnings of the land formations. “I didn’t expect to see them here,” I tell D’Silva, and she laughs. “They have always been here. It is that other stuff that was not.” She looks up at the overpass. “These are the things that are new.”
D’Silva points to the different animals we see. “The mud lobster breaks down vegetal matter and aerates the soil naturally, which is good for crops,” she says, calling the crab “a good friend of the mangroves.” In another part, we see khubbe, a local variety of shellfish, small crabs that have fastened themselves onto steel pipes. “These are edible. And their shells, if burned at high temperatures, can create lime plaster,” she says. Although rice farming has decreased on these khazans, with farmers and their kin going to work in the city, many of them are now used to harvest fish. “It’s possible to simply walk into the khazans and put a net out to get what you want,” D’Silva says. “Why should one go to the ocean and put out big traps when the food you need can be right outside?”
We jump into D’Silva’s green Jeep and drive around Santa Cruz and Panjim. She shows me more creeks and rivers. We stop to see a large sluice gate, on which two boys stand, watching the wheels of the manos turn. The boys tell me about the volcanic sweeps of garbage that end up in the khazans. The gate is situated in Ourém Creek, a water body connected to Mandovi, Goa’s largest river. Mandovi is moderately polluted with magnesium and lead, damaging everything it crosses. The boys mention that in Santa Cruz and neighboring Taleigão, the Goan government reserves the right to take charge of uncultivated land, which it often sells to real estate brokers or land sharks, leading to unmapped, fortresslike apartment buildings, glass villas for Bollywood stars, and other structures that go right through the khazans and pummel themselves into the riverbeds. We walk a small distance ahead to note how rubbish from the city settles at the gates, in the farms, at the bottom of small hills where discarded buildings erected by business tycoons sit like lazy birds of prey. “Waste enters the rivers and their water, and this water comes into the khazans,” one of the boys tells me. “It directly invades the khazans, their salt pans, and flood plains to cultivate rice.”
Later, the boys mention that Ourém also extends to an estuary, called the “Rio de Ourém,” or the “River of Gold.”
Read more: Goa's Last Living Khazans
In the months tracing Korgut, my quest for it never ended at a grand encounter with the rice itself. It did not present itself in a shimmering plate at an upscale restaurant. No giddy revelations were made about how the grain tasted or looked. I had gone into my search looking for a novelty product; as someone from the city, I found it hard to remove the commodification of food and my impulse to chase taste-centric gastronomic experiences. But my search led me to parts of Goa that I would not have been able to see if not for Korgut. It led me to vegetable sellers on highways who explained to me the difference between modified papayas and those from their gardens: smaller, shapeless, sweet. It introduced worlds of activists fighting for the grain, and the khazans where what is left of it is sustained. With every question I asked about Korgut, small bits of history emerged—heirloom yams soaked in water to avoid poisoning, small fish cultivated outside one’s door. Around it, an astounding array of a million ecosystems presented themselves, speaking for the region.
As I visited khazans around Goa to ask about Korgut, crowds of activists blocked a highway in protest against the state government’s destruction of the Mollem forest, home to thousands of species and dense vegetation, to build a coal railroad. Many times I rode my scooter through Anjuna and stopped to chat with teenagers holding up billboards to protest the culling of ancient trees. “Why do people want to turn our home into a mall?” one of them asked me, eyes blaring in the hot sun. In Santa Cruz, when D’Silva and I sat down for lunch, we met a local activist in his sixties with the chiseled profile of a young boy, who ate quickly and left the room in comical curtsies to “tackle some land sharks,” as he said. These are the worlds wherein Korgut lives—where individuals and communities have resolved to help the khazans, their rice varieties, and other ecosystems to survive. Even as much is swept away in the culture of flux in Goa, Korgut somehow managed to stay. Back in the Curtorim khazans, Rodrigues and Oliveiro exchange stories of work when they were young boys: “There is a festival on the day the gates would open,” Oliveiro says, “and many from all over Goa would come. There would be sweets and songs. Thousands of people would come marching when the gates would open, and then during harvest. People would walk, walk, and walk, to eat the rice.” They both remember this. They talk about Costa’s film, where women rice farmers sing to one another about their days at work and troubles at home; they discuss the next steps for their committee’s meeting—a repair schedule for gates and campaigns of support for Korgut, so it can become consolidated in the imagination of Goans once again.
I ask Rodrigues if he thinks the grain is in danger, to which he is obstinate. “No!” he says, with the same determination on the day of the boiler’s inauguration. “No! Look there, Korgut, and behind you as well.” He points to parts of the khazans, where more seeds have been planted. Oliveiro smiles at his friend and humors my question: “We want to keep growing it, and we want it to stay. But who can say?” We sit near the gates where Oliveiro tells me he spent many days when he was younger. “Rice contains many things—language, livelihoods, memories. The real question is this, Miss—what do we lose when we lose a grain of rice?”
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published on 1 September, 2021 in Orion Magazine and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: In many parts of Goa, rice is a culture, not merely a livelihood / Credit: Kabir Naik.