Hema Vijay meets R. Rajamurugan who’s on a quest to document and rejuvenate forgotten food traditions of the State

This young man visits obscure villages, speaking to farmers in the fields and elderly village women, sifting through folklore and oral history on food. R. Rajamurugan’s grand vision is to document and rejuvenate ancient and forgotten food traditions of the State. “For instance, consider ‘Kongu Nadu’ that includes regions such as Coimbatore, Erode and Namakkal. In these regions, mothers visiting their married daughters traditionally took with them opputtu as ‘seedanam’ or gift; new mothers were given ‘selavu rasam’ at child birth; when the baby was about six months old, it was started on ragi pal as a supplement; girls reaching puberty were fed karupattineisukku urundai and ellu mavu…”

Nutritional foresight lies behind these culinary traditions. Chew on this: Opputtu is a dal-coconut-jaggery pancake rich in protein and iron that ensure the health of the woman and her babies to be born. Selavu rasam is a brew of coriander, jeera, long pepper and black pepper, and aids digestion and detoxifies the gastro intestinal tract and the uterus. Ragi pal is a light gruel made from sprouted, roasted, ground and finely sieved ragi. Loaded with protein and calcium, a staple diet of ragi pal boosts the health of the bone and the bone marrow and prevents arthritis and bone problems. Karupattineisukku urundai is a mix of dry ginger, palm jaggery and ghee that gives the maturing girl extra iron and is a detoxifying agent too, while ellu mavu serves as a protein and iron supplement as it includes pearl millets, sesame and palm jaggery. “Our culture had many such food traditions that introduced power-packed nutrition in a timely manner,” points out Rajamurugan.

Born and bred in the small village of Andrapatti in Namakkal district, Rajamurugan decided to be a food scientist, and headed to Coimbatore to train in catering and hotel management at the R.V.S. College of Arts and Science. As a student, he had researched on incorporating aloe vera into everyday food and discovered that aloe vera sap worked well in jams, squashes, pickles and halwa, while grapes dipped in aloe vera juice stayed edible and infestation-free for a good three or four days more than otherwise, even at room temperature. Later, in a collaborative research, he found that eating 20 gm to 30 gm of fresh aloe gel (after peeling its skin and outer layer) lowered blood sugar in diabetics by up to 48 per cent and cholesterol by up to 56 per cent, a finding he had presented at an international conference organised by the Central Food Technology Research Institute, Mysore.

The other agenda this young man shoulders is in getting Indians to rediscover millets. “Nutritious millets once were the staple cereal of our diet — not rice and wheat. Millets such as varagu, samai and kudiraivali make tasty idlis and dosas. Kudiraivali and kambu are ideal for curd rice, while varagu is great for variety rice; millets can be made into snacks such as murukku and dishes such as pongal too.”

Now, Rajamurugan has returned to his roots — to organic farming in his native. In between, he visits cities such as Chennai to conduct ‘millet cooking’ workshops. He also runs Nalla Soaru, a catering service that makes and delivers millet-based cuisine. Mail nallasoaru@gmail.com for details.

MILLET MAGIC

- Millets have much more fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals than rice and wheat, and are gluten-free too

- They have a lower glycemic index, and make you feel full for long

- Millets are easy to cook, and offer a wide choice to choose from

- They are eco-friendly, as they need one 10th of the water required to grow paddy rice and less external fertilizer