THE MIGHTY MILLETS: The Dhempe College of Arts & Science Botonay department staff and students presented this amazingly insightful exhibition of greater and lesser known millets of India, demonstrated with recipes to taste. The message going out this officially declared Year of Millets (2023) is to eat more millets for stronger health. Chuck refined carbs and sugars!
By Tara Narayan
OF COURSE I like it. It is high time we gave refined white rice and genetically modified wheat to death a holiday and switched over to putting more of our wonderful millets into our mouth. Suddenly there is so much focus on the mighty millets of India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has officially made 2023 the Year of Millets … so voila! You must have been reading millets everywhere and millet recipes are being shared and I was nostalgically remembering all the bajra na rotla my paternal grandmother in village Bhadran in Gujarat used to make for evening meals – just rotla and a “vadki” of fresh dairy milk from the small home dairy farm down the lane where I spent my first four years of life, a nugget of “gor” (country jaggery) would sweeten my bowl of milk.
We were poor then, my paternal grandmother was a young widow and as usual some relative had taken away her share of some farm property; she had a son and daughter to raise, educate. At some point of time her male chauvinist son asked her why she needed to educate his sister and Kashi-ba Patel (late of Bhadran) retorted, “None of your business! I’m working hard to educate both of you in the local school and later on TB High School…” Yes, she took to grinding grains of various kinds into flour on her stone mill to earn money to raise her small family. I salute my paternal grandmother than my maternal grandmother who in comparison had a cushier life!
But those days in most country homes the evening meal would be of wheat bhakri (in rich homes) and bajra-no-rotlo (bajra being the greenish-grey pearl millet, in less rich homes) – the seniors would even crumble a bajra-no-rotlo in a bowl of milk and that would be dinner, maybe a banana to follow. But the rotlo would come deliciously hot, laced with home-churned white butter or memorable ghee (so precious that it had to be accounted for and my grandmother kept an account of how it was used, often quizzing my mother about where the ghee went today).
So, I have a very soft corner for a baked on mitti wood choola bajra-no-rotla to this day, and my own mother used to make it occasionally as a treat for my father, “rotlo, gor, khadi” (the last being buttermilk curry, spiked with a garlic tempering). I always say poor village India used to eat more healthy in the old days than rich urban India of fried puri or desi ghee-laced rotli, or the British time introduced breads which became popular across with the small vendors going around on their bicycles with a precious see-through glass box installed precariously…dispensing sweet buns and small loaves of soft bread with crusty brown topping). Bread dipped in tea replaced bajra-no-rotla in some homes I dare say, then of course Amul butter came along in Gujarat and it was a winner, replaced desi ghee.
BUT this is about the millets of life and India has several of them. One of my mami or maasi would always have a millet kichdi or bajra-no-kichdo some evenings….garlic and onion-tempered in ghee, bits of cinnamon and cloves enshrined judiciously for better flavours. Yummilicious, the millet kichdi would be eaten with just lightly tempered buttermilk, if not the more seasoned buttermilk khadi (which had a hotter tempering)….and roasted papdi or rice papad, home-made as a side dish.
This is to say once upon a time in a vastly post-independence impoverished India, the poor would eat their easily available millets; and now the poor are eating industrial rubbish while the richer classes rural and urban patronize millets to improve the quality of their diabetes, heart disease and lack of fibre in their diet! The mighty millets are back making a big splash here, there and everywhere in urban India, this time with official blessings. I just hope they don’t go out of the reach of the still poorer people of a new India on the move for the better or worse!
LAST week I was delighted to hear that the Botany Department of Dhempe College of Arts & Sciences had put up a “Science Exhibition 2023” and part of it was the entire laboratory displaying “The Mighty Millets” of the country in all kinds of creative ways, with recipes put out for visitors to taste and comment. I dropped by to see and came away utterly taken up by some of the millet recipes and hoping I will be make them at home. No more buying of white rice and wheat flour in my life!
How many millets we still have in this country, rejoice. The Dhempe College students and staff of the Botany Department had gone out of their way to put up a real educational spread and here was a map of India made up of millets …various “rangoli” illustrations using the greater and lesser millets or so speak, perhaps heavier and lighter millets. Like bajra or pearl millet would be heavy density millet while barnyard millet perhaps not so. Differentiate the greenish-grey bajra or pearl millet from smaller creamy barnyard millet or “sanwa” which is so ideal for making “millet upma.” Foxtail millet, kodo millet, little millet, finger millet, barnyard millet, proso millet (is this a native millet or introduced from abroad)…a chart put up educated that the small millets “offer better nutrition than rice in terms of high dietary fibre and minerals.” A lot of health is about how much fibre soluble and insoluble there is in our diet, both playing an important role to be in the pink of health.
Foxtail and barnyard millets are energy foods and help digestion and absorption, improve heart health, bone health, reproductive health and immunity. Millets in a diet normalize and maintain bowel health, lower cholesterol levels, help control blood sugar levels being lower glycemic food values and chances all the drag of obesity fat too will fly gradually vanish so you’re back in shape. Eat small millets if you really want to live and digest smart!
The small millets are praised a lot because they make up one of the ancient crops which farmers are probably not cultivating anymore; in fact, foxtail millet is mentioned in the Yajur Veda. Foxtail millet and finger millets were found at archaeological sites in Rajasthana and Uttar Pradesh and poets like Avvaiyar wrote hymns on the salient features of these small millets, some as smaller than small round beads, the maroon ragi/nachne is one of the small millets. Sorghum and pearl millets are larger, heavier millets and more popularly used for making bhakri today, the smaller millets also go into the making of various savoury and sweet porridges.
At Café Central down town Panaji, my dear farmer friend Nifa tells me, you may savoury ragi/nachne wafers and they’re superlatively good as side crunchies with a main meal. Ragi/nachne is very distinctive, much loved in Goa. Before I forget be aware that millets are reputed to be more mineral rich vis-à-vis calcium, iron, potassium and more alkaline upon digestion (unlike the acidic cereals of wheat and rice, more so once refined). Needless to alkaline is good, acidic is not health-wise. The more acidic body beautiful, the more it will rot from the inside out. You want to eat less acidic food for better parameters of fighting fit immunity and health to stand up all these viral infections which plaguing humanity.
The message going out increasingly is eat fresh, et local, eat from farm to table, eat variety – and shun deadly packaged litter as much as you can. Boycott packaged foods, especially plastic packaged foods! Plastics in the food industry should really be banned by any honest and courageous government. It’s not going to happen because the government loves making money all the way to the grave or crematorium grounds! But I always say at individual level when nothing works boycott works. Boycott plastics in the all the ways you can.
AT the “Mighty Millets” exhibition at Dhempe College I did two rounds of the millet goodies on display for the judges to judge and mark; for sample tasting…and photography sessions which many were engaged in. Savoury millet dishes, sweet millet dishes: Amongst the tempting fare were ragi/nachne dosa, idli, appe, and other millets for pulao, even a biryani, millet thalipeeth and so on. What really caught my fancy the most was “Ambil” – traditional in Goan homes mid-morning, the secret of fitness! Ambil is a gorgeous pinkish porridge of ragi/nachne flour with the goodness of coconut milk in it (reminds me a bit of my favourite Indonesian/Malaysian porridge of “bubor chacha” of red pinto beans and black rice). Next best I liked the wholesome savoury “Bhagar” of barnyard millet, akin to the more familiar upma of many a southern Indian home…“Bhagar” is superior fare! Ragi dosa, ragi appe with onion chutney (to live and die for); kodi pulao; even foxtail millet prawn pulao and a biryani; amongst sweet affairs was kheer of kodo millet, several ladoo dark and glossy, barnyard sweet pongal (I prefer the savoury version of roasted whole green moong and country rice.
This being the pongal season and down south India in Tamil Nadu they make pongal sweet and savoury, the Tamilians are crazy about a pongal tradition which permits rice to boil over as a harbinger of wealth or some such thing — as if to say we want to be rich enough to let some rice boil over without tearing our hair out). Both pepper-dotted savoury pongal and caju-laced sweet pongal are delights for the palate.
What else? The thalipeeth-styled ragi roti was agreeable …but I didn’t see any “bajra no rotlo”? Which reminds me from my Guju past, millet flours make for some great steam cooked dishes…one may just bring water or buttermilk or soup stock to the boil, spike it with whatever seasoning wished for, and gently spoon in the millet flour — cover a bit and afterwards stir it all up to get a fluffy mass of steam-cooked flour to be eaten with green or dry chutney, laced with cold-pressed sesame seed or shudh ghee. In Gujarat a ripe “qanta” chutney, that is ripe bael fruit puree makes for an incredibly tangy, sweet memorable chutney.
Try steam cooking flours! They’re very agreeable to the palate and superior health food – steam cook freshly milled pearl millet or bajra flour in boiling buttermilk water spiked with ajwain and crushed garlic. Our “papdi no lot” is basically steam-cooked rice flour and I always think how great steam-cooked rice flour is …just like the Maharastrian “pithla” and “jumka” served with large ragi roti. The lighter pithla and the heavier junka are savoury gram flour savoury delights and marry well with roti of all kind and traditionally ragi or nachne roti with an onion relish and garlic dry chutney on the side, or lemon juice-enriched fresh garlic-green coriander-green chilli-crushed peanuts-lemon juice and sea salt tossed “thecha”, an all-time favourite combo.
This is to say discover millets and put them into your life with discoveries of the amazing kind! This way more farmers will return to growing millets anew…hey, don’t let them go out of life, killed by an overwhelming dependence on debilitating rice and wheat.