This Rice is Tamil Nadu's Best-Kept Secret

Seeraga Samba, a rice variety facing extinction, is being preserved and promoted by Svatma, a boutique property in Thanjavur
Seeraga Samba is a rice variety indigenous to Tamil Nadu
Seeraga Samba is a rice variety indigenous to Tamil Nadu

Luxury resorts are aplenty, almost in every corner of the country now. Yet, one can&rsquot help but feel conflicted when we take into account their environmental footprint. Nonetheless, sustainability is the buzzword in the hospitality business and many small, boutique players have kept the environment at the core of their operations. Svatma, a century-old house that has been lovingly restored by Krithika Subrahmanian, dancer and architect of exacting standards, offers an insight into the culture of Tamil Nadu from a mirror of sustainability. 

Deep in the heart of the temple town of Thanjavur, Svatma marries the warmth and individuality of a boutique property with culture and heritage of the locale. A proud member of Relais & Ch&acircteaux, an association of independently owned unique hotels and restaurants throughout the world, everything here - from their plastic-free service, a unique sound spa and an evening dedicated to arts - sings of a deep commitment to the environment and community. 

The Ark of Taste 

What brought us to Svatma is a bowl of rice. A bowl so unique, it found a place in the Slow Food International&rsquos Ark of Taste, an online catalogue of over 5,500 foods facing extinction, during the Food For Change campaign organised in association with Relais & Ch&acircteaux. 

This bowl is of the delicious Seeraga Samba- a rice indigenous to Tamil Nadu. Its cultivation is confined to Vellapallam and Keevalur taluks in Nagapattinam district Uppiliyapuram panchayat union in Trichy district and parts of Thanjavur district. In India, Sujan Jawai and Svatma nominated ingredients to the Ark. The Ark aims to save everything, especially traditional products endemic to a particular region, the know-how of which resides with local communities that have been consuming them for generations.

Seeraga&rsquos story

&ldquoSvatma&rsquos food is a remarkable representation of the Indian culinary heritage, from sourcing, preparing, cooking to presenting a dish to our guests. Embodying the principles of &lsquoGood, Clean and Fair', our menu is curated with locally sourced ingredients and eliminates all packages and processed food. Especially, all our spices are hand ground to bring an authentic and fresh flavor in every dish,&rdquo elaborates Krithika. 

At the wellness retreat, the food is vegetarian and sourced locally, doing away with any produce that needs to be imported. Their 100-mile policy is a welcome change - they only incorporate products that are grown and supplied by farmers within a 100 km of the property. 

"Embodying the principles of &lsquoGood, Clean and Fair', our menu is curated with locally sourced ingredients and eliminates all packages and processed food," says Krithika

And Seeraga Samba is the rich, starchy, short-grain rice that is at the heart of the conscious culinary journey at Svatma. The rice takes its name from seeragam or cumin, as it resembles the small, oval seeds of the spice, while samba refers to the season in which the rice is grown - August to January. Among the dozens of varieties, Seeraga is the finest (and the most expensive) in the state, said to be rich in vitamin B complex with a low glycemic index.

The approach Svatma takes centres around increasing demand for local varieties and focuses on a plant-forward approach. Here, chefs significantly reduce each plate&rsquos carbon footprint and support farmers cultivating heirloom produce. &ldquoThrough our food choices, we can collectively influence how food is cultivated, produced and distributed,&rdquo adds Krithika. All the masalas that go into the delectable dishes at Svatma are freshly grounded in the kitchen. There is a strict policy against cold storage and not a single item is frozen. 

At Svatma, Seeraga is incorporated in various ways in the menu. From biryani to tamarind rice, options are aplenty. Chef Ayya Durai works deftly with a bowl of fresh Seeraga, to which he adds ingredients like mustard seeds, curry leaves, asafoetida, dry chilli and peanuts, whipping up a plate of steaming Tamarind Rice that we devour with haste just as its aroma fills the kitchen. 

Beyond The Kitchen

At Svatma, food is the holy grail and the footfall at their gourmet kitchen is testament to the taste. The scene is equally vibrant in the back of the kitchen. A sensational backyard acts as a rich repository of superfoods, ranging from ghee and Indian gooseberry (amla) to drum sticks and lotus seeds. The edible food waste from the restaurant is turned into fertilisers that feed the lush gardens at the property. But there is a conscious effort to minimise wastage by incorporating all parts of the plant into a cuisine, the experience of which goes beyond taste. We dug into Poriyal made with banana flower, which was served to us on a banana flower petal. At Soukyam, the spa at the property, homegrown and locally sourced organic ingredients like rice, tamarind, ginger and coconut go into making the scrubs and essential oils for therapy.

Why Slow Foods

Time seems suspended in animation at Svatma, as we indulge in a moment of relief from the fast-paced city lights. It is this experience that Svatma incorporates into its food, focussing on restoring heritage and identity following the science of Naturopathi Sidha. &ldquoOur food is connected with our nine feelings, which links our body, mind and soul. At Svatma, the food is tailor-made to suit your doshas, or your dominant mind and body state -- Vata, Kapha and Pitta. Incorporating this into our food has become the need of the hour,&rdquo Krithika says.

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