Boutique food: Shastha Foods founder resurrects ‘extinct’ rice from India


Mani Krishnan, the man who founded the Shastha Foods brand of a ready to cook dosa and idli batter in the United States, wants to promote varieties of healthy, ethical, indigenous rice from India that he said had almost gone extinct due to lack of demand.

Krishnan, who founded Shastha Foods in 2003, told indica News that in 2019, he was on a regular trip to Chennai in Tamil Nadu and was looking for something to add to his business that is different and unique. So he visited a farm in Manjakkudi near Trichy, Tamil Nadu, called the Spirit of the Earth and was surprised to learn that there are thousands of varieties of rice in India.

“In Chennai, they told me they have 1,000 varieties, out of which I saw 250 variants in laboratory conditions,” said Krishnan. “These labs have plants, seeds, and have generated demand”.

“I want to be a differentiator and sell something no one is selling, as well as promote Indian culture and awareness,” said Krishnan, who is already selling nine varieties of indigenous Indian rice in the US.

He said he was not just creating awareness about the rice but also supporting farmers by giving them the confidence to take charge of ownership.

Each rice packet Krishna’s company sells carries photographs of farmers who have grown the rice — something which Krishnan says no one is doing in India.

“I look at it and studied, and I realized there is a big opportunity to make a difference by bringing into the market, providing market access and basically committing to picking up the rice they grow, and also they develop confidence year by year,” he said.

“We bought nine varieties of rice and have sold 80 percent,” said Krishnan, who imported 10 tons of rice last year. The size of each packet of rice is 2 lb, because it’s in the testing phase in the US market at present.

Krishnan said that at Spirit of the Earth, he was surprised to suddenly learn they have 1,000 varieties of rice, which have gone almost extinct because of the high price and lack of demand.

“What Spirit of the Earth has done is detailed research, planting and retrieving seeds from various parts of India and building a library. They are the one of the pioneers in this sector and they have a shop in Chennai as well,” Krishnan said. “The challenge is no one is growing the indigenous rice until there is demand.”

To create demand, Krishnan said he hosted a series of webinars, posted Facebook advertisements, and hosted cooking programs cross the San Francisco Bay Area.

“There is a demand but we have not touched the surface yet,” he said. “Today India is the second-largest producer of rice after China, but no one has the kind of rice varieties India does.”

He said the rice he is importing is completely pesticide-free.

Naming a few popular rice that’s in demand at in the US, Krishana cited the Kerela Sundari from West Bengal, popular in the Sunderbans; and Kichidi Champa, Attur Kitcidil Champa, and Kattuyanam cultivated in Tamil Nadu.

“Kattuyanam is a tall variety and can even hide wild elephants when they enter the farm! It’s good for diabetes and can be eaten like porridge,” he said.

“Some variants of rice are considered good for pregnant women, others for arthritis, others have calcium — each has its own benefits.

“We also have planned to introduce batter made from this rice. Here in the US people are fond of Sona Masuri and Basmati, people think rice is not healthy but we also want to prove there are heirloom categories of rice in India which are healthy.”

“These heirloom rice varieties have been in India for generations and gone extinct due to lack of demand. We are trying to make a difference by creating awareness and hope the demand will increase within a span of five years,” Krishnan said.