As buzzwords go, currently millets seem to be topping the list. We are talking about it, trying to cook it at home, and seeing them pop up on restaurant menus. We seem to be finally waking up to a load of goodness that's been growing in your backyards.
Millets have always had a lot going for them, they are indigenous, score high on nutrition, and are classified as smart foods. "Yet, with the Green Revolution, processing of rice and wheat became easier, resulting in them being readily available," says Agriculture Minister, Government of Karnataka (GoK), Krishna Byre Gowda, who has been a strong proponent of millets. The recent National Trade Fair organised in Bangalore by the GoK, with a focus on millets, saw large numbers of farmers, consumers, exhibitors and more participating.
"Rice became a symbol of aspiration as it signified socio-economic improvement. Added to that, the longer cooking times that millets have and the perception that it is a poor man's food, relegated it to the back burner," he added.
In Uttarakhand, mandua (finger millet) is eaten as rotis, jhangora (barnyard millet) as paleu or chencha, a savoury porridge cooked in buttermilk; in Gujarat and Maharashtra, sama is eaten during fasts and daliya (lapsi) is a staple
But, Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal -- food writer, menu consultant and owner of APB Cook Studio Mumbai--strongly feels that millets never really lost their significance. "They still feature strongly in traditional food habits and home cuisines. In Uttarakhand, mandua (finger millet) is eaten as rotis, jhangora (barnyard millet) as paleu or chencha, a savoury porridge cooked in buttermilk; in Gujarat and Maharashtra, sama is eaten during fasts and daliya (lapsi) is a staple. Bajra and jowar are common, as are chaulai (Amaranth), kauni and other millets.
Are we really going back to our roots?
"Going back to old ways is only a matter of acceptance," says chef Kasiviswanathan, Executive Chef, One Atria Café, Radisson Blu Atria Bengaluru. "But for me, as a professional chef, there is always the desire to do something different and unique, and millets give us that opportunity. We have made ragi hoppers and converted that to a biryani with sprouted ragi added in. We also have ragi hoppers served with coconut milk infused with jaggery and scented with cardamom for the sweet tooth."
It's thanks to this innovative drive by restaurants and home chefs that millets seem to be gathering momentum. That is how we are getting to see a millet risotto, porridge, desserts, and even energy bars created at Eywa by Saby in Delhi and Mineority by Saby in Pune. "20 years ago when everything from the West glittered, we were taken up by it," says Sabyasachi Gorai, chef and mentor, fondly known as Chef Saby. "Today, millets have found their place as a superfood in the world. The idea is to look at what is easily available in the local biodiversity. The art lies in creating amazing dishes from what is locally found around you, rather than with exotic ingredients". Think about how delicious Chef Saby's black olive and millet risotto can be!
"We also have ragi hoppers served with coconut milk infused with jaggery and scented with cardamom for the sweet tooth."
Considering that the eating out crowd today primarily comprises millennials who are keenly watching food trends, the focus on them as key audience is natural. When considering how to propagate the use of millets, Manu Chandra, Chef Partner, Toast & Tonic (Olive Group), says that experts he worked with felt there were two ways to go about it: bottom up or top down. "Top down, we found to be ideal, because of the proclivity of the younger generation to look at cool things and be open to them," says Manu. "By highlighting that it is not only versatile but tasty, we have managed in a small span of time, to take it from obscurity to something that is a hero".
Chef Manu has found so many uses for millets across the board. He says, "We use them in desserts, cakes, pancakes, summer roll-ups, salads, tikkis, croquettes, kibbehs and as fillers. The success of a millet risotto bar at a recent commercial catering gig that we did shows that it is going to be a bona fide eating option soon".
With an increased awareness on millets and the vast possibilities with it, chef Ramasamy Selvaraju, Executive Chef, Taj Vivanta, MG Road, Bangalore, serves up a host of dishes that are seen across his restaurants and cuisines. "For our breakfast buffet, we have dishes like sorghum upma, ragi pongal and multi-grain dosas on offer. We have also created an array of modern European food across courses which include the roasted pearl millet tossed with baby pineapple, smoked chicken, crispy lettuce with coriander vinaigrette and, a combination of foxtail, and pearl millet ravioli filled with goat cheese and vegetables tossed with sundried tomato pesto with olive oil."
Krishnamoorthi always felt that it would be the older generation of folks to frequent their outlets, but he was pleasantly surprised to see that 75% of his guests were young adults!
With chefs in standalone as well as star establishments presenting millets in so many ways, experts like Rushina too have tempting creations of their own out there. "I love millets and use them regularly in traditional dishes and world cuisines. I make a jowar bajra porridge, green-mango-jowar salad as well as savoury and sweet millet Buddha bowls. Millets can be used as substitutes for rice, in everything from fried rice to risotto and khichdi".
Eating millets the traditional Way
The good thing about millets and its use is that it does not have to be rendered in international and innovative forms to be acceptable by all. Standing testimony to this are restaurants such as Prems Graama Bhojanam (PGB) in Chennai and Bangalore. When N S Krishnamoorthi first began PGB in Chennai with a completely millet-based menu, he did it with the idea of providing people with food that they were familiar with.
"It is our afternoon lunch thalis that are the biggest hit," he says. "It has three kinds of muddes – ragi, bajra, white millet, and four kinds of Kodo-based preparations in keeping with favourites like tomato rice, tamarind rice, curd and lemon rice. This is followed up with sambar made of Foxtail Millet and then a lemon ginger pepper rasam fortified with herbs such as Brahmi. There are also seasonal, local vegetables served. A black rice halwa with organic jaggery is a speciality. Another very popular dish is our Tumkur style inspired thatte idli made using a kodo millet".
Krishnamoorthi always felt that it would be the older generation of folks to frequent their outlets, but he was pleasantly surprised to see that 75% of his guests were young adults! While one may have gone the traditional way, an approach that Vaathsalya Millet Café in Bangalore took is that of mixing and matching old recipes with new.
"My mom used to disguise our food a lot to feed us healthier. She was always innovating and experimenting with food, and so it wasn't difficult for her to come up with an all millets menu", says Vivek Madinur, Business Development Manager of Vaathsalya Cafe. "Our menu looks modern but has a North Karnataka rural cuisine touch to it. We have millet malts, buttermilk and snacks. We also have a unique creation of our own: ragi pop. This is popped ragi that is spiced, the ready-to-eat snack came about when we wanted to create something healthy for my grandmother!"
Proponents of millets believe that the increased awareness and demand will encourage more cultivation and proliferation of millets. Better choices being made available to consumers by innovative chefs will definitely help too. The bottom line remains that we do not have to look too far to help cultivate healthier food habits.
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