The puffed grains are like white petals, each nearly double the size of other varieties available in the market. They are stronger, not easy to crush between fingers, and can remain crispy for a longer time even when used for jhalmuri.
This is how people of Lakshmipur, a south eastern Bangladesh district, describe the qualities of homemade puffed rice (muri) the region makes. Unlike the market peers, the traditional muri making is different because of paddy selection, parboiling, drying, and hand frying.
And the final product also costs around three times higher than the regular puffed rice since the taste is worth it, and the market demand is also high.
Anjana Das, a local muri maker, said the authentic process of making the traditional puffed rice is complicated as they only use local paddy variety "Gigoj".
First, the paddy needs to be soaked in hot water for a day, and it is parboiled. Then the grains are sun-dried to husk rice. The paddy-to-rice process alone takes five days. On the sixth day, the rice frying to make muri begins at midnight and continues till dawn.
The frying must be done in a wood-fired oven, and the frying would only use a sprinkle of saline water. Then the warm white popped grains are now ready to go to the local market.
Eighty kilograms of paddy can produce a maximum of 48 kilograms of puffed rice. The demand for homemade muri remains high round the year, but it skyrockets during Ramadan and in winter.
Traders and producers say the district's homemade muri production amounts to 500 tonne a year.
Saraswati Das, a retailer at Lakshmipur town, said Gigoj paddy muri hovers around Tk130 per kg while commercial brands cost only Tk50 per kg. Homemade muri costs more as the paddy costs Tk55 per kg while the regular paddy is around Tk22.50 only. Plus the delicate making, lengthy process and labour add up to the final product cost.
Making ends meet by muri making
Nearly 100 families in the district have been making muri for generations as their lone means of livelihood. Jordighi village, which also goes by "Gigoj Muri Gram", alone has 30 families dependent on muri business.
Babul Das, one of the villagers, said he has been making puffed and popped rice items for 30 years.
"I have built a house in the town. But I prefer to stay here as I live the profession, the legacy," he commented.
Samsherabad, Uttar Mojupur, Berirmatha, Karunanagar of Kamalnagar upazila, Dakkhin Gram, Uttar Gram, Char Jalia, Char Doctor of Ramgati Upazila, and Raghunathpur are some of the famous muri making neighbourhoods in Lakshmipur.
In a muri-making family, the tasks are distributed and the family members work like a well-synchronised team. Some are responsible for boiling the paddy and drying it, while others make rice, do the frying and carry the product to the local market.
In the district town, two muri haats are held every Thursday and Sunday. The producers, wholesalers and muri lovers from different places would throng the market in the morning as the sales would continue until around 9pm.
Muri maker Chandradhan Das said a family sells around 50-60 kg of puffed rice on a haat day.
Swadesh Das, a muri wholesaler at the haat, said at least 5-6 tonnes of puffed rice is bought and sold on a regular haat day. Many retailers also buy the product directly from the producers.
Another wholesaler Nirmal Das said after buying the puffed rice from Lakshmipur, some Dhaka traders send it to Malaysia and some Middle-Eastern countries.
Inadequate supply, cash crunch — muri makers' trouble
Muri makers say production of Gigoj paddy – the main ingredient of the business – has been on the decline since farmers are shying away from the low-yield local variety to high-yield paddies.
Besides, a crunch in business capital often compels the producers to borrow from local lenders with high-interests.
"We understand the muri makers need cash support. But the bank cannot lend them as cottage industries need trade licence to avail a loan which they do not have," said Shamsul Islam, the acting manager of Sonali Bank Lakshmipur branch.
Islami Bank Lakshmipur branch official Sana Ullah, however, said they can lend to the muri makers on easy terms, but the loans need to be disbursed through rural development projects.
Contacted, Faysal Hassan, chief information officer of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, said he also regularly buys Lakshmipur's puffed rice.
He said the government has taken necessary measures to preserve the local rice varieties. Besides, steps will be taken to make bank loans more accessible to the puffed rice producers.