LIFESTYLE Easily accessible and affordable, millets are making a comeback to our kitchens

Jowar, Bajra, Ragi. High school geography has ensured you can reel off the names. However, do you know the rest of India's millet family: Kodo Millet (Kodon), Foxtail Millet (Kakum), Little Millet (Kutki), Proso Millet (Barri) and Barnyard Millet (Sanwe). In addition to Sorghum (Jowar), Pearl Millet (Bajra) and Finger Millet (Ragi), that's eight in all. Meet the millets that could save your lives.

In a country wracked by lifestyle diseases, millets are a powerhouse of easily accessible, affordable nutrition. A rich source of minerals (calcium, iron, manganese, phosphorus and magnesium), they're high fibre, low fat and gluten-free. Their low glycemic index makes them ideal for diabetics. They lower cardiovascular diseases, bring down the incidence of colon cancer and enhance the body's resistance to chronic diseases.

Four decades ago, millets were India's staple food. Now, they're being replaced by rice and wheat to an extent that people have forgotten how to incorporate them into their daily diet.

“Millets have much more calcium, protein and iron than rice and wheat,” says Sandeep Kandicuppa (programme coordinator of the Deccan Development Society which runs the Millet Network of India) explaining why he's a passionate supporter of the crop. “Now they're slowly being re-introduced into the urban scenario, as millet flakes, millet noodles, breakfast foods. Unfortunately in rural areas they have been sidelined — the current generation has forgotten how to cook them — ever since the public distribution system began offering rice and wheat for Re. 1 (in Tamil Nadu it's free of cost).” In the last four decades of the Green Revolution, Kandicuppa says several million hectares of area that was under millets have been lost, costing the nation many million tons of these grains and compromising the food security of millions of poor households.

The Millet Network of India (MINI) unites civil society groups working on reviving traditional, sustainable systems of agriculture. “We have been working with women in the Medak district, Andhra Pradesh, for 25 years, training them to process millets, revive land, and market surplus seed.”

“Millets are suited for a harsher climate,” he states, explaining why they're an ideal way to feed India. “They need less water and no chemical inputs. Studies show a two degree increase in temperature can kill wheat. Rice releases methane — a green house gas. We are living in times of climate change: Under these circumstance millets are one answer, one very solid answer.”

Thanks to the many resources online, and organic shops sprouting in every city, it's not difficult to add them to your daily menu. Dinesh Kumar's practical, informative website is a great place to start. It lists an astonishing range of recipes, ragi orange cake, foxtail millet pesarattu, kodo millet mango rice, little millet kichdi and pearl millet rotis.

Kumar's a founder member of the Timbaktu Collective, a registered voluntary organisation initiated in 1990 by activists interested in developing alternative models of sustainable development in drought-prone Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh.

Powerhouse of nutrition

When Kumar first moved to Anantapur, he says a lot more people cooked with millets. “Within 10 years they stopped because rice and wheat were so cheap via the Public Distribution system.” He adds, “Polished paddy rice is one of the worst foods one can think of. It's one of the reasons we have the largest diabetic population in the world. Millets, on the other hand, are complex carbohydrates, providing people with slow digesting, normalising sugar.”