The return of millets is great, and not just for your health

By Shauravi Malik & Sohini Dey

Suddenly, millets are everywhere. Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt swears by ragi chips. Gourmet chefs now add millets to their recipes — from pakode and biryani to risotto and brownies. Mothers swear by ragi (finger millet) as the best weaning food. And this week, at Gulfood 2018 in Dubai, the India section had several millet-based products on display. A long crusade by Byre Gowda, the “Millet Man of India” — and initiatives by the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) and the government of Karnataka — appears to be paying off.

At Gulfood, several products with millets were visible on stands. Yet, some of the most common questions we were asked were: What is a millet? How is it different from wheat and rice? Where does it grow? We heard comments like, “Hmmmm ragi… it tastes yuck”. But then they would eat the ragi cookie and say, “this tastes good!” Some people still think that healthy is necessarily “yucky”.

When we told a few visitors at Gulfood that millets are the quinoa of India — in terms of their nutrition profile, especially foxtail millet — they didn’t seem convinced. Then again, some people came by only because ours was a millets stall and they were keen to know more.

So, what are millets? “A type of plant that grows in hot countries and produces very small seeds,” according to the Oxford Dictionary.

People assume that millet is a single type of grain, but there are over 500 varieties. Pearl millet (bajra) and sorghum (jowar) are among the most well-known, with good reason. Along with high protein and magnesium, pearl millet boasts the highest folic acid among all cereals, so it’s great for pregnant women. There is a long list of nutritional plus points going for it — as with sorghum.

Sorghum flour is used to make pancakes, rotis, and baked goods. It keeps obesity and diabetes in check. Studies show sorghum can even boost hemoglobin, calcium, and iron levels in children. Other lesser-known millets (kodo millet, barnyard millet, little millet, and proso millet) are similarly beneficial.

How it began for us

We started our company because we realised that the the modern food system was in disarray. As young mothers, we want to cocoon our children in a world of homemade food. Yet, as working mothers, this was not always possible. In looking for alternatives — for food that was made ‘just like at home’, and studying nutrition and dietary benefits of several traditional grains — we fell in love with millets. We learnt more about how each millet group has its own specific set of micro-nutrients.

While developing recipes, we mixed the old with the new. We combined our grandmothers’ recipes with modern twists and came up with the Chocolate Ragi Pancake and the Beetroot Ragi Dosa.

In recent years, with increasing awareness, ragi and foxtail millet have become popular. At 384 mg per 100 gm, ragi has more calcium than wheat and even milk! And foxtail millet is a rich source of protein and can control diabetes. These are easy grains to cook with and can be adapted for a range of recipes, from Chinese fried rice to savoury patties — which is why it’s such a hit among foodies and cooks.

India’s food secrets

When we were researching recipes for first foods for children, we didn’t expect that the answers lay in our own homes, in our own food heritage, even though they had been erased from our conventional, urban daily diets.

In Sikkim, millets were traditionally used for local brews (known as chaang). Today, these grains are key ingredients in the recipes of microbreweries in Bengaluru and Pune. There are restaurants, culinary workshops, recipe books, cooking groups, exhibitions and even a marathon dedicated to promoting these super grains. Millets were once used to make porridge and bread. They were an alternative to rice. And several types of millet — foxtail millet and little millet — are just as easy to cook as rice. Just as quinoa became a star, we visualise foxtail millet too could become the next (not new) super food.

The green angle

And it’s not about only nutrition. These grains are also great for the environment. Where rice and wheat require annual rainfall of over 1,000 mm and 500 mm respectively, millets can grow in an arid climate. Pearl millet flourishes in areas where the annual rainfall is 350 mm. Other varieties can thrive with rainfall even lower than that. And at a time when states across India are experiencing drought-like conditions, this is a significant factor in necessitating their revival.

Millets are also fairly resistant to pests and require minimal fertilisers and pesticides. They grow rapidly and enrich the biodiversity of farmlands. For young parents who find it a challenge to verify the truth about “organic”, millets are nature’s answer. It’s a food inherently hardy and organic.

Reviving forgotten foods

Even though millets have been consumed in India for centuries, their visibility waned in recent decades due to the popularity of rice and wheat during the Green Revolution.

However, with increasing emphasis on diverse grains, and people’s quests to find alternatives to rice and wheat, millets are returning to the spotlight. Not only are millets being consumed like rice or turned into flour for baking or cooking rotis, they’re being packaged into foods and used in gourmet recipes.

Today, millets are available as breakfast cereals and flakes, cookies, cakes, chips, baked snacks and more. It is so important to innovate and bring out the versatility of millets. These tiny wonder grains have a long way to go before they become as ubiquitous as rice and wheat, but their growing list of fans is a sign that the grains are here to stay.

Shauravi Malik is the co-founder of Slurrp Farm, a health food company for children. Sohini Dey is a freelance writer and copy editor in New Delhi, India

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