November 21, 2017, 4:08 pm
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Heirloom rice gets makeover for high-end export plates

SUSHI and maki rolls of black heirloom Ominio and Kalinga Unoy rice.

Tossed Chor-chor-os rice, kale, baked onions, cashew brittle, basil, roasted mushrooms, sweet potato, squash and beets with miso sesame vinaigrette.

“You’d be amazed, you’d love it,” said chef Robby Goco said at a recent gathering of chefs, farmers, scientists, curators and foodies to celebrate heirloom rice.

“Think outside the box,” said chef Jessie Sinsioco who spooned Spanish sardine tapenade over rice crackers. 

Augustina B. Calasiao, a farmer from Benguet, offered balatinaw rice whose dark violet hulls yield semi-slender grains that are deep purple. “We serve it only on special occasions,” she said.

It was indeed an extraordinary gathering at the National Museum Thursday last week during the “Treasures in Art and Rice” event that featured two paintings from National Artist Vicente Manansala and a special selection of heirloom rice varieties from the Cordilleras. The paintings are now on permanent display at the National Museum’s International Rice Research Institute Hall.

Heirloom rice, planted for centuries and passed from generation to generation in the Cordilleras’ rice terraces, is glutinous and aromatic, with unique taste and texture, and comes in colors of red, purple or violet.

It is rare and “in danger of disappearing,” said National Scientist Gelia T. Castillo. “The terraces are being abandoned, the children are not interested in rice. Farmers should continue growing heirloom rice, otherwise it will be gone. Premium prices and new, larger markets will keep it going.”

Fusion cuisine is one way to ensure the staple continues to be grown in the rice terraces of the Cordilleras, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“Without rice, they will simply be terraces,” said Castillo, professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños. It is only now that scientists are taking a second look at heirloom rice, she said.

The “cultural value of rice,” as IRRI Director General Robert Zeigler put it, is just as important.

“Heirloom rice, which grows from 500 meters above sea level, is just 10 percent of the rice grown in the Cordilleras while the rest are lowland, high yielding varieties,” said Cameron Odsey, regional technical director of the Department of Agriculture in the Cordillera Administrative Region.

“The terraces are now in danger of being neglected,” he lamented, because of low production and the lack of irrigation, the ingenious system that waters the terraces.

Heirloom rice averages only 1 ton to 2.5 tons per hectare; lowland, high-yield varieties average about 5 to 6 tons per hectare.

Amid increasing populations, the demand for food and amenities is rising, Odsey said. Younger generations are not interested in farming rice and higher incomes from small-scale mining and other commercial crops are more attractive, he said.

The DA-IRRI Heirloom Rice Program is looking at traditional varieties that have high nutritional properties, are in limited supply due to longer growing periods, and are more expensive than more widely-cultivated rice.

Heirloom rice varieties will be characterized, classified and studied for their properties and genetics. Cultivation practices for each variety will be documented, allowing scientists to work with farmers to optimize yield and grain quality.

“The idea is to ensure that production continues to improve through volume and marketing,” said Dr. Bruce J. Tolentino, IRRI Deputy Director General for Communication and Partnerships.

“Heirloom rice promotes Filipino food,” said Amy Besa of Purple Yam in New York (Brooklyn) and in Manila (Bocobo and Nakpil streets). “New Yorkers love Ulikan Red, Tinawon, Ifugao Dikit and Kalinga Unoy rice.”

It’s exciting, said Dr. Erik J. Sacks of the Department of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “We like genetic diversity and we want farmers to succeed.”

The market for heirloom rice “is not huge at the moment,” said Sacks, a rice geneticist formerly with IRRI. “But there are people who are willing to pay for specialty rice. It’s a growing high-end market.”
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