Rediscovering this forgotten food, as celebrity chefs and top hostesses bring the grain back to the dinner table
Food and diet conversations right now often involve millets. The superfood, jostling for attention with the likes of quinoa and amaranth, is low in carbohydrates, high in proteins and rich in iron, zinc, calcium and more. But what’s most exciting is how it is being given a makeover—with chefs like the Taj Coromandel’s Alok Anand dishing up ragi-crusted vegetable galettes, bloggers swapping recipes of rich millet stews and hostesses becoming brave enough to serve this humble grain at parties. “I serve millet-based dishes because they are gluten free and quite versatile. Guests enjoy my millet chivdas, bhel puri, thinai laddoos and cholam curd rice,” says Meyyammai Murugappan of The Chettinad Cookbook, whose dinner parties are a culinary experience. Meanwhile, environmental activist Vandana Shiva believes the rising popularity of millets is driven by the disease epidemic. “A doctor’s answer to many of our ailments is a high-fibre diet,” says Shiva, whose Dehradun-based NGO, Navdanya, has been promoting millets for 30 odd years. Nevertheless, she is happy there is awareness and is ensuring it grows with initiatives like their Forgotten Foods cookbook. “It includes contemporary dishes like ragi pizza and cholam tabbouleh,” she says. Here’s looking at others in the city who are bringing the grain back into our lives:
Driving the demand for millets in the city is Dhanyam. But the husband and wife team of Madhusudanan K and Thendral didn’t always have it easy. When the organic store in T Nagar opened in 2009, they remember people bypassing their racks of millets. “Housewives didn’t know how to cook it and worried their family wouldn’t like it,” recalls Thendral, who encouraged them to start small, with pongal and upma. Her three-year-strong cookery show on Jaya TV, Arokiya Unavu, “where almost 95 per cent of recipes involve millets” has also brought in a surge of awareness. “Today, over 80 per cent of all the orders have at least one millet product on it,” she laughs. Next up, she wants to publish a book on millet recipes, conduct workshops to spread awareness and increase the classes she already conducts in colleges on millets.
Restaurants, too, are trying to steer their customers towards healthier eating. Isha Life’s Mahamudra restaurant in Mylapore conducted a millet festival recently, which went down a treat. “It began as a 10-day festival, but we increased it to 18 days because of the demand,” enthuses Meena Thenapan, the R&D-in-charge. Adding that their cholam thayir sadam and kudravali halwa were hits, she says the festival will now be an annual event.
In Besant Nagar, Food Karma, the restaurant begun by the Divine Science store, is doing its bit, too. “Besides introducing millets in all South Indian dishes—from idli and dosas to upma and pongal—we are also experimenting with North Indian (mixed millet tandoori roti) and Chinese cuisine (Schezwan fried thinai),” says owner Srivatsa NC. After Diwali, he will also start millet awareness programmes with cooking classes at the restaurant. “But we are excited about a kids’ menu we are planning—think baked millet samosas and millet cookies. We plan to approach schools in the city to open a counter in their canteens,” he says.
Meanwhile, under the umbrella of the Women’s Collective (WC), a grassroots organisation working to empower women, millets are the staple crop being cultivated by thousands of women farmers across the state. “There are only positives—it’s nutritionally good, provides fodder, sustains the fertility of the soil and doesn’t require fertilisers and pesticides,” says Sheelu Francis, the president of the collective. The WC is also spearheading awareness campaigns, with volunteers organising classes in schools and colleges, holding recipe and cooking competitions, conducting cultural programmes like street plays, and even lobbying with schools to start millet canteens. “We have a catering unit in Kolathur, called Parampariya, where we serve only millet-based food. We also sell surplus farm produce and breakfast mixes, like dosa,” says Francis. For the last three years, WC has partnered with the Adyar Cancer Institute to run a millet outlet at its Youth Health Mela held every January. “We also had a live canteen during the Tobacco Free India Marathon 2014 at Island Ground,” she informs.
Details: Parampariya – 25501257; Dhanyam – dhanyam.in; Food Karma – 42666588; Mahamudra – 8754477800
Farmers in Auroville like Tomas Tomassen of Annapurna Farm and Krishna Mckenzie of Solitude Farms are also part of the
fight to bring back millets. Besides growing the grains and
holding farmers’ markets, Mckenzie runs an organic kitchen
and has initiated a movement, Localicious, to encourage
people to eat locally-grown produce.
■ Low-input crops, they are resilient and drought resistant. “Millets use 250 millimetres of water while rice uses 2,500 millimetres,” says Shiva.
■ Popular varieties: cholam (sorghum), kambu (pearl millet),
ragi (finger millet), thinai (foxtail millet), sama (little millet), varagu (proso millet) and kuthiraivali (barnyard millet)
■ Organisations like the Millet Network of India (MINI), the Women’s Collective and Navdanya are trying to get millets
added to the midday meal scheme. “This would bring actual nourishment to the children, make them nutritionally literate
and far more accepting of diversity,” says Shiva.
■ MINI and the Women’s Collective are also trying to encourage millet cultivation. They are working with the government and panchayats to pass resolutions to encourage millet cultivation.
The marginalisation of millets is based on a kind of racism. Food culture is dominated by a white superiority—white sugar
over brown, polished white rice over brown. We have to undo that
—Surya Praphulla Kumar