Its botanical name is Eleusine coracana. But across the length and breadth of this country it is known as ragi, mandua, nachni and so on.
At the ground level, in the farms, this hardy grain grows in very diverse eco-zones: from the hills of Garhwal, to the Deccan Plateau or the Jharkhand plains. It requires very little care and can thrive even in drought conditions. It is also resistant to pests and diseases, ensuring that the food basket of a farm is never empty. With a 1 tonne per hectare yield, it has the highest productivity among the small millets of India.
As a food, with its sisterhood of millets, it shares a high nutritional profile and an equally high sustaining power; it, therefore, most definitely, qualifies as a Super Food. It has the amazing property of being suitable for the 0 to 90 age groups. Due to its high calcium content (at a whopping 344mg per 100g) and easy digestibility, in the South of India, its grains are malted and used for weaning babies.
The protein of ragi is said to be as complete as milk protein, which makes it an ideal substitute for lactose resistant people. Another health advantage is its low glycemic index which makes it suitable for diabetics as well. Moreover we should not forget that, like all millets, it is gluten free and as such its flour is ideal for those with gluten allergy. Its high on energy property has made it a popular food among those involved in hard labour.
Is it surprising then that traditional cuisines, at the pan-indian level, have evolved many tasty ways of preparing this ingredient? In the South, dosas, upmas, mudde and other delicacies, such as halva, are prepared with its flour. In fact, one must add here that due to its outer covering, finger millet has to be ground whole and used only as flour. But what could seem as a processing disadvantage is actually a nutritional advantage as this increases its fiber content.
In Jharkhand and Bihar, where it is known as mandua, the finger millet flour is used to make delicious pancakes, both savoury and sweetened with gud, while Garhwalis prefer to make rotis out of it. One must mention here the special “thag roti”, so called because the outer layer is made of wheat, with an inner stuffing of mandua; the roti therefore, so to say, masquerades as a plain wheat one whereas it has another layer inside. Given the heat generating property of finger millet, this roti is specially made in winter and relished after a hard day’s work when energies need to be replenished.
With its multiple benefits, ragi, the “forgotten food”, always favoured by hard working classes across India, is fast becoming a sought after Super Food. Many confectionary brands now proudly promote ragi biscuits. More importantly, at the artisanal level, ragi biscuits, muffins and cakes have been developed.
The new found popularity of finger millet just goes on to show the fact that very often gastronomy has its roots in the hearty cuisines of local food cultures. A good example to cite here is how at a winter session of Navdanya's Grand Mothers’ University (at both celebrating and validating the wisdom of our grandmothers), during a culinary workshop, one of the resource persons, an Ayurveda expert, prepared a wholesome, warming ragi halva and upped its gastronomic and taste quotient by just adding some orange peel to it. It is in these spontaneous and organic ways that food cultures keep evolving, adapting to new terrain, while being rooted in the terroir.
The finger millet has indeed covered an amazing journey; it started by being considered a coarse grain, specially from the colonial times, to becoming today, in post-colonial times, a grain duly recognized for all it has to offer ecologically, nutritionally and gastronomically, as a true blue Super Food, which packs in a powerful punch in its tiny grains.
For those who would like to include finger millet in their diet, here are a few suggestions on how to use it. The Navdanya Café at Dilli Haat regularly serves ragi pakodas in winter; you just have to make a batter, as the besan one, and add chopped vegetables of your choice to it.
You can then fry the pakodas in very hot cold pressed mustard oil, coconut oil or any other unprocessed edible oil. The best results are with mustard oil which suffuses the fritter with its own distinctive flavour.
Wherever a recipe asks for wheat flour, re place half or a quarter of the quantity with ragi flour. Below, you will find the recipe of our in-house crepes and mathi. You can let your creative juices flow and create your own recipes.
World-renowned seed activist Vandana Shiva and Navdanya Director Maya Goburdhun believe in the power of local superfoods. Navdanya is actively involved in the rejuvenation of indigenous knowledge, culture and forgotten foods.