Why stick to white on our platter? Geeta Padmanabhan rediscovers the health benefits of millets that were once part of our traditional diet, besides rice

The ragi string-hoppers (sevai) were a hit. The strings were soft, well-spiced and separate. There was pride in serving a healthy snack that looked appetising. And, if it hadn't turned out well, I would have said, “Eat it, it's good for you.”

Inspiration to try an alternative grain came from “Lost Treasures”, a colourful stall at the Food Fest at MOP Vaishnav College. Speaking of the goodness of our ancient grains, the students said, “They need very little water, they're cheap and highly nutritious. Add them to your menu.” Final-year MSc students of Food Technology & Management Roshini RP, Krupa K, Akshaya S, Swetha Sundararajan and Anila Joseph readily shared their research on these grains.

Losing out on colours

It makes interesting reading. “Our plates see only white these days,” it starts off. “Our breakfast is made with white rice, lunch is shimmering white rice and dinner is light brown wheat chappati,” it says, adding dramatically, “We have lost the colours on our plate. We have known hundreds of millets, we grow them, yet, only a few like ragi find their way into our porridge. Our fast and furious lifestyle has made us forget our treasure — millets!”

There’s ample proof ancient kitchens stocked ragi (Eleusinecoracana), jowar (Sorghum vulgare), bajra (Pennisetum glaucum), kodo (Paspalum scrobiculatum), and foxtail millet (Setaria italica). Ragi, which formed an important part of traditional diet in India, is recognised as an excellent source of calcium (350 mg/100 gram), good for bone health. Ragi mudde (Karnataka) and ragi koozhu/kanji (Tamil Nadu) were taken with sambar. Ragi was also sprouted, dried and powdered and served with milk.

Jowar or Sorghum, a staple foodgrain, contains iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorous, protein and B-vitamins such as thiamine and riboflavin. It is also a rich source of phytochemicals. Jowar-based roti, dosa, puttu, khakra, kichadi and paratha have come out of village kitchens for centuries. Bajra or pearl millet grows in drought-prone areas with low soil fertility and high temperatures. It survives where rice and wheat cannot. Gluten-free and rich in iron, magnesium, copper, zinc, vitamins-E, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin, it has disease-fighting phytochemicals that lower cholesterol and improve our antioxidant status. Bajra maintains blood glucose levels and has bundles of fibre.

Gluten-free

Heard of thinai? The Chinese harvested it in the sixth millennium BC. They probably didn’t know it is gluten-free and a source of B-vitamins as well as iron, manganese, phosphorus and tryptophan, but must have found it wholesome and healthy. Kodo, aka varugu arisi, rich in dietary fibre, is now gaining popularity as a rice substitute. Kodo and samai improve nutrition, boost food security, foster rural development and support sustainable land care. Is it an urban mindset that we use it as birdseed rather than eat it in the form of bahala bhath, the students ask. Why won't we accept that millets nourish us and our soil, stand as better options in agriculture with their shorter cultivation time and longer shelf-life?

“Millets are ground as whole grain, have more protein and extra fibre because their skin stays intact,” says Dharini Krishnan, nutritionist. Their vitamins and minerals are preserved. Polished ragi has traditionally been used as a weaning food for babies. Added to the batter, ragi, bajra and wheat powders will result in red, green and white dosas — colourful for kids! And these don't need any extra oil. Diabetics can make bajra grit (broken) the main dish by pressure-cooking it with 1:2 water, she said. It doesn't cause “heat”, doesn't constipate, but helps lose weight and control cholesterol. Soak wheat for 24 hours, wash and set it aside for another 24 hours. You will get wheat sprouts that are tastier and provide far greater health benefits than wheat.

A number of innovative recipes are making millets more acceptable now. Multigrain idli, multigrain dosa, thinai upma and ragi puttu are all doable dishes. Department stores now stock biscuits, murukku, cutlets and pizza made of ragi. Bajra powder makes rotis, vadais, fritters and wafers. Thinai maavu is good for urundai, thepla and murukku. Surprise family and friends with kodo upma and kodo puttu.