Meaningful Millets Are Taking Over Kitchens Everywhere
Image Credit: Chicken millet polenta, Pic- Sage Farm Cafe

Last Sunday, I was at an unique dinner, in which a five-course menu was ingeniously created, using different parts of the cacao bean, yes, the very same one from which we derive one of our most beloved foods, i.e., chocolate. So the cacao pulp was made into a refreshing welcome drink with coconut water, pineapple, etc. There were cocoa nibs in the pappardelle pasta, which had a very subtle bitter (bordering on pleasant) aftertaste and nutty texture.

It was the fourth course, however, a roasted chicken paired with millet polenta and a cocoa coffee sauce, that grabbed gourmand-level attention for its perfect crafting. But more than the cacao element, splendid though the cocoa coffee sauce was, it was the perfectly cooked millet polenta that did the talking. It was creamy, fluffy, and had a beautiful al dente texture, bringing together a feeling of wholesomeness, fulfilment, and good nutrition. While polenta, an Italian dish of origin, is usually made of cornmeal, this one at the cacao pairing table was made out of the relatively rare "proso" millet, closely related to the foxtail millet family. 

Interestingly, before cornmeal was brought into Italy by Mexico, polenta used to be made of millets, chestnut flour, or buckwheat, so in a way, it was a harking back to the days of yore by chef-owner Kavitha Mantha of Sage Farm Cafe, Hyderabad’s first farm-to-fork cafe, who is known for adopting slow and sustainable food systems, both while growing produce on her farm or cooking in her cafe. 

Millets are deservedly occupying centre stage in chefs' kitchens and tables as well as urban households these days, both because of their health value and popular appeal. While they had been relegated to the status of "poor man’s cereals" for years in India, and even that was/is changing in favour of rice and wheat even for the economically disadvantaged, the impetus being powered by governments both nationally and internationally in promoting both millets' consumption and production is changing millets' dynamics. 

India is the largest producer of millets, accounting for 20 percent of global production and 80 percent of Asia’s production. In India, bajra or pearl millet, jowar or sorghum and ragi or finger millets form the most popular trinity of millets consumed, though there are others like foxtail, kodo, barnyard, little , proso  and then there are two pseudo cereals or pseudo millets, amaranth or chaulai (out of which Rajgira flour is made, most often used during Hindu fasting rituals)as well as buckwheat or kootu millets of which the flour, Kootu atta is again extensively used for making puris during Navratri ‘vrats’ or fasts. 

Millets are gluten-free, gut-friendly, have a low glycemic index, and are packed with vitamins (A and B), niacin (the rock star chemical compound that safeguards body enzymes), calcium, potassium, iron, and zinc. They are therefore just the right foods for diabetic issues and celiac disease. 

Millets also make for a better and harder crop option than rice and wheat for farmers as they require minimal water resources and are climate-resilient. Grown in arid and semi-arid regions as kharif crops, millets in India find a presence in Rajasthan, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. These ten states accounted for around 98 percent of millets production in India during the period 2020–21. It might come as a surprise that millets are the staple cereal for half a billion people residing in Asia and Africa. 

The government of India had already commemorated 2018 as the National Year of Millets, and millets production did get a boost after that move. In 2022, at the behest of the Indian government, the UN, and more specifically the FAO, or Food and Agriculture Organisation, took the lead in declaring 2023 as the International Year of Millet. 

Ragi is a popular cereal of rural south Karnataka, and I remember relishing Ragi Mudde with a fiery-hued rustic country chicken curry in the few but popular restaurants offering south Kannadiga cuisine in Bengaluru in the new millennium. Ragi Mudde involves a fairly simple but dexterous handling of proportions and cooking times for two ingredients: ragi flour (sprouted is a healthier option for protein requirements) and water, slow cooking the two till they acquire a dough-like consistency, and then steaming the dough for a while, which after cooling is rolled into these perfect circular discs. 

Ragi Mudde is often paired with a watery side like sambar or any vegetable curry; in fact, it is a popular breakfast had by farming communities in Karnataka. In Andhra Pradesh (especially in the Rayalaseema regions), rice is added to ragi flour and water and is referred to as "Ragi Sankati." It is eaten along with Natu Kodi Pulusu, a spicy, tangy country chicken curry, to make it easier to digest, as ragi is heavy to digest, even though it has a low glycemic index. 

While ragi mudde might not enjoy as much popularity as its ragi dosa and idli counterparts, it is certainly one of the most nutritious and tasty staples in Indian cuisine. 

The other ragi version I have grown to like is Ragi Java, which is a drink made with ragi flour. You may have it sweet with water, adding jaggery, though nowadays you get ragi malt added with both sugar and cardamom powder. You may also opt for the salty version by adding buttermilk and a pinch of rock salt to the ragi flour. One tall glass of cold Ragi Jawa, sweet or salty, and you are ready to face the world! Ragi rotis are also great to eat, especially because of their dark chocolate shade, but rotis made out of bajra and jowar have more character, if you ask me. 

Jowar rotis, or bhakris, are especially endorsed in Maharashtra, where they are eaten with pithla, a thick besan curry, or the delightfully spicy thecha, hand-pounded green chillies and garlic, and peanut chutney. There is a robust, earthy touch to this dish that brings you in touch with Mother Earth like few dishes can. Bhakris of jowar or bajra are also served on Rajasthani or Gujarati thalis and are common in the state of Karnataka too. 

Bajra, or pearl millet, has been grown in Africa and the Indian subcontinent for the longest time. Bajre ka raab is a comforting drink made of bajra, ghee, jaggery, and ginger powder and is widely consumed in the winter in Rajasthan and Gujarat as an immunity booster as well as a nourishing drink for pregnant or lactating mothers. Bajra khichdi also has a distinct taste as compared with its rice counterpart. 

Recognising the market for millets, processed food companies have started selling baked jowar, bajra, and ragi puffs, flakes, and other snacks. But I think the best way to reap the benefits of millets while savouring their very unusual taste is to have them as rotis, porridge, or a drink. 

Or even as an occasional surprise, like chef Kavitha did with a beautifully textured, warm pumpkin risotto made not with the conventional Arborio rice but with our humble millet, the jowar. 

May 2023 be replete with great millet-eating experiences!