Resurrection rice | Cookup

Brought to Trinidad from West Africa via the United States, Moruga hill rice was a staple of the Merikin community for generations, writes Franka Philip. Now entrepreneur Mark Forgenie wants to make this traditional food available to all

  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

As children, Mark Forgenie and his brother would play in the “coffin” under his grandparents’ home. This eight-foot-long chest was actually a rice box, where his uncles would store the rice farmed on the many acres of land his family worked in Moruga, deep in south Trinidad.

At Christmas time, this large box would be filled with rice, and it would fall to Mark and his brother to scoop it out and process it for older relatives to cook. “We’d put it in the mortar and pound it for a good forty-five minutes to shell it out, then we’d throw it up and fan it until it was clean,” Forgenie recalls. “That would always break up the rice, but you’d get nice red rice that way.

“The tradition was, from the start of December through January we would eat rice on a Sunday. On Saturdays, we would pound the rice and the men would cook the ‘Creole rice’ in different ways. A lot of times with coconut milk. Sometimes they would parch it with bene [sesame seeds] and sometimes with bird peppers.”

This rice Forgenie grew up eating is African Oryza glaberrima, known locally as Moruga hill rice. It was introduced to Trinidad by the Merikins, a group of African-American soldiers who fought for the British in the War of 1812. Forgenie himself is a descendant of the Merikins. The soldiers were each given several acres of land in Trinidad as their reward for fighting for the Crown. The rice — native to West Africa — had previously been grown in the Carolinas and the state of Georgia, where many of these soldiers were born. It was grown by the Merikins because of its hardiness and long shelflife.

This red rice has never been a mainstream product in Trinidad, as it’s grown and consumed mainly in Moruga and surrounding areas. For years, hill rice production and consumption was in decline — something Forgenie realised only when his father suffered a health crisis in 2009.

“My father had a small stroke, he had a clot on his brain,” Forgenie says. “The neurosurgeon, who is from Moruga, told my Dad he had to change his lifestyle — my Dad loved to eat bacon, pudding, and ham every morning, so his cholesterol was too high.” As part of his recovery, the doctor mandated that the elder Forgenie drink porridge made from hill rice twice a day.

At the time, Forgenie was living in north Trinidad. He dropped everything to head to Moruga to his uncle’s home. When he got there, he expected the rice box to be full — but, to his dismay, there were just five pounds of rice.

“I grew up knowing these boxes to have four hundred pounds of rice, so I was shocked. I asked him what was wrong, why was there no rice.” Forgenie recalls. “He told me ‘none of your cousins are interested, everybody is either working offshore, driving maxi taxi — nobody wants to work the land, nobody is interested in the rice.’”

Forgenie thought this situation was unique to his family, but he soon discovered the lack of interest in farming the rice was widespread in Moruga. He had not known this tradition, this “unique thing” he had grown up with, was dying.

And how could he know? At the age of eighteen, Forgenie left Trinidad and headed to Britain, where he joined the Merchant Navy. He spent eleven years working on tankers in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South America — far from verdant and fertile Moruga. He returned to Trinidad in 2003, launched his own marine services company, and took up residence near Port of Spain. Rice farming was the furthest thing from his mind.

After speaking with his uncles at the time of his father’s illness, Forgenie started exploring the reasons why hill rice had declined so badly, and sought to rediscover for himself the art of rice farming. His first stop was the farm of Miss Patrice, an eighty-six-year-old woman.

“I was working for myself, so I had the time,” Forgenie says. “For two months, I would drive down on a weekend, stay at my family’s house in Basse Terre, and go see what Miss Patrice was doing. Soon enough, I realised that rice work is so labour intensive, it just turns you off.”

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But he was not dissuaded. Inspired by what his father’s neurosurgeon had told him about the benefits of hill rice, Forgenie felt he had to do something. “Dr Maharaj never did the research, but had anecdotal evidence from his stroke patients who used the rice as a porridge every morning and evening as part of their therapy. He said they recovered in half the usual time, and ninety per cent of them recovered. I realised there was a medical and scientific thing about this rice, that’s not like other rice.”

So, since 2009, when his father had that stroke, Forgenie — supported by his wife Cassie — has been literally travelling the world to find ways to make the farming of Moruga hill rice more efficient and profitable. He set up Vista Dorado Estates on his family’s land, with the belief that farming could be made easier if there was equipment suited to the hilly terrain of Moruga. “I knew the answer was mechanisation, but there was no research about it. I went to the Ministry of Agriculture and they said they tried it, but they failed.”

He was told by ministry officials that he should expect to fail as well, as there was no equipment on the market that could help. Forgenie was amazed at the negativity. However, once you meet Mark Forgenie, it doesn’t take long to recognise that he’s passionate, determined, and extremely astute.

After failed experiments with local heavy equipment distributors, Forgenie sat down and drew a model of the kind of equipment he felt was needed for the terrain in Moruga. His quest for the right equipment took him to China, where he met with a company who bought one of his designs. They were so impressed, they took it into mass production, and Forgenie is now the Caribbean distributor.

Having solved that part of the equation, it was all systems go. The Forgenies set out their plans for getting Moruga hill rice into the mainstream, via their company Caribbean Sea and Air Marketing. They worked closely with government agencies, and developed highly positive relationships with the Intellectual Property Office and ExportTT, Trinidad and Tobago’s national export facilitation agency.

ExportTT helped the Forgenies with courses in key areas like the principles of packaging and labelling. And in 2018, Caribbean Sea and Air Marketing received a TT$317,000 grant from the Ministry of Trade to improve technology in their manufacturing process.

“As an outsider, someone who never grew up in Moruga, I wondered, why is this rice not on the shelves?” says Cassie Forgenie. “We had to package the rice professionally, because traditionally, it was sold in a paper bag at the San Fernando Market.”

She explains that a major turning point came at T&T’s 2018 Trade and Investment Convention, one of the biggest trade shows in the Caribbean. Here the Forgenies met with officials from S.M. Jaleel, a beverage company that sells their drinks up the Caribbean and through the Caribbean diaspora. The result was an international distribution agreement for Moruga hill rice. You can now find Vista Dorado Moruga hill rice on the shelves at all major supermarkets in T&T.

I’ve tried the rice myself, and I can attest to its delicious nutty flavour, particularly enhanced when cooked with coconut milk and bay leaf. Vista Dorado’s lineup includes plain rice as well as varieties flavoured with geera, lemon pepper, and even Scorpion pepper, for adventurous types. You can also try that healthy porridge, made with ground rice flavoured with cocoa, nutmeg, and other spices. A small cookbook is in the works.

After the Forgenies received their government grant, an editorial in the T&T Newsday called it “a healthy serving of good sense, reminding us of how our unique place in the world, our unique history, can be leveraged as a resource to return us to the path of economic growth.” Plus, Moruga hill rice is delicious — a winning formula in the ongoing campaign to make the most of indigenous Caribbean foodways.