Posted by: Pradeep | September 11, 2008

Food crisis – look towards millets

A few months back when the food crisis was big news and there was much agonising about inadequate supplies of rice, wheat and corn, India only responded by pulling strings on export of rice. Well India has another options too; millet? It’s really a no-brainer: millet is a generic term for several grasses with edible seeds which are known for being able to grow in poor soils, require relatively little water, are much more resistant to pests and blights than most other cereal crops, can be stored very well and have an excellent nutritional profile. 

The ones we are most familiar are jowar (sorghum), bajra (pearl millet) and ragi (finger millet), but there are many others grown in India like barnyard millet (jhangora), foxtail millet (kauni) and little millet (samo, varai). Along with pseudocereals like buckwheat, amaranth and quinoa (so called because they produce edible seeds like cereals, but aren’t grasses) these alternative grains have immense nutritional potential for a hungry world. 

So will we see a major movement to millet soon? Millet has always been important in hilly areas where soils can be poor, water drains away and the lay-out of fields isn’t ideal for wheat. Traditional Kumaoni recipes include rotis made with flour from mandua (ragi), or kuttu or gangari, which is buckwheat, and jhangora ki kheer. Walking down the valley from Mukteshwar one can see occasional patches of ragi, with its characteristic brush like thick red-brown heads of grain 

Rice and wheat are normally considered prestigious and local farmers waste time and resources growing them, while millet which was really suited to the area, was spurned. Millet cultivation was becoming marginal, something to keep for occasional household consumption, for the lean season (ragi stores exceptionally well) for older people who had not lost the taste, or for quasi-medical use, like using ragi porridge to wean children. It’s not that people were unaware of the health benefits of these grains, but they still felt compelled to eat rice and wheat. 

The irony is that back in plains one could go into a fancy gourmet store and buy a loaf of bread made from that same ragi at inflated prices. Or buy packets of pre-cooked grains like quinoa (a pseudocereal from the Andes), farro or spelt (ancient forms of wheat) which could be heated and served as part of gourmet meals. Or a packet of breakfast cereal like Ancient Grains which is made from spelt, millet, kamut (a proprietary variety of wheat which has been marketed as having originally been found in Egyptian tombs, though this has not been substantiated) and quinoa. Ancient Grains, which is a Canadian brand, markets itself with the message: “By supporting the use of these rare and ancient varieties of grains, you are encouraging the continued cultivation of these treasures from the past, which might otherwise be lost forever.” 

I’m not quite clear why breakfasting Canadians are more suited to saving grains like millet, rather than people in areas like Kumaon where it comes from. But that’s how it often goes in the food business. People don’t value the foods under their nose until they are taken up and repackaged and sold back at prices they can’t afford. But why have millets and pseudocereals lost out in the great grain race? They probably had a head start — archeological sites indicate that around 3000 BCE millet was in far greater cultivation than rice. Primitive communities would have appreciated the easy growing, drought resistant and long storing capacities of millet, so why did they switch to wheat and rice. 

Gluten is one reason. Millets are low on elastic protein which allows wheat to expand and be baked as bread. Rice lacks it too, but compensates with large grains that cook separately to give a fluffy mass that can be mixed with other foods. Millet grains tend to be really small –– one etymology for the name gives it the same root as million, for the thousands of grains in each head –– so cook more densely, making porridge rather than separate grains. Ragi in particular seems to cook to a slightly glutinous texture, which is why it’s used to make ragi-mudde, the sticky ragi balls of Karnataka that are almost impossible to eat in the normal way, but have to be sort of gulped down. 

Ragi also can’t be hulled, so has to be eaten whole, which makes it heavy, although more nutritious. Other millets can be hulled, but generally also tend to give a heavy feeling when eaten, an advantage for peasants with lots of hard work and little food, but not for urban dwellers used to lighter work and food. 

Then there’s the question of taste. Rice and wheat have been bred to neutrality, so they cook to give smooth starchy foods with no strong tastes that might come in the way of the foods they are pairing. Millets have been much less carefully bred and can vary a great deal, from varai, which seems to me to have little taste other than a clean mouthfeel, to ragi with its dark, almost chocolaty notes, or buckwheat with a distinctive grassy undertone, or the nutty aftertaste of jhangora. I love these tastes, but they can take getting used to and can be tricky to pair — you need strong rather than delicate tastes (despite buckwheat’s peasant food reputation, small pancakes made with it are the preferred match for strong tasting caviar). 

Finally, millet recipes can be confusing because there are so many varieties, under so many names. Because many were seen as peasant foods they are known by many different dialect terms, so it can be really hard figuring out which is which and how best to use it. Even the scientific literature is confusing because there has been some taxonomic reclassification going on. Browntop millet, which is grown in the US (for birdseed!) is said to have come from India, but I can’t find it here because I don’t know which is it’s correct scientific name — panicum ramosum or urochloa ramosa — and have no idea what the local names could be. 

But if you are willing to deal with all this, then there’s every reason to switch to eating millets. India is lucky still to have a wide range under cultivation, though it’s not always easy finding them. Health food stores generally sell millet flours or broken grains that can be cooked in a delicious savoury upma, or biscuits and breads that be tasty, if hard on the teeth. I tend to find that traditional grocery stores will stock millets where supermarkets don’t bother –– many of the customers in the traditional stores are older people who still remember the taste or health benefits of millet. 

They also sell to the devout who keep fasts during which grains like rice and wheat can’t be eaten. This is when the pseudocereals come in useful, perhaps because they recall a time before the era of cultivation when food had to be foraged from the wild, and plants like these were valued for their copious seeds. Amaranth is known as Ramdana or Ram’s Grain, which suggests it was eaten by Ram during his time in the jungle. With such an endorsement from antiquity, backed by plenty of modern health knowledge, we should need little encouragement to go back to millets and other ancient grains. 

(For more on Indian millets, check Bhoole Bisre Anaj, a fascinating handbook produced by the Navadanya organistion)

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