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Making friends with foxtail and other millets

2023 will be international year of millets, the first plants grown by humans. Their popularity has plunged, but as the climate crisis grows, here’s why you should bring them back onto your plate

Foxtail millet pulao. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

By Samar Halarnkar

LAST PUBLISHED 20.11.2022  |  12:00 PM IST

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Navane or rice? This question frequently pops up in the Halarnkar household. I regret to report that during the pandemic we increasingly chose rice, simply because it was easy to make. It was also comfort food in a way navane could never be, or so we thought.

It is undoubtedly true that navane (the Kannada word for foxtail millet), handled poorly, can taste like cardboard and is easy to get wrong. But show a little love and patience and navane, or any millet, is indisputably superior to rice or wheat, packed as they are with minerals, vitamins and fibre, apart from being gluten free.

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We often hear friends say they have given up wheat or rice, and while we have not for reasons I will elaborate on, we certainly have incorporated millets into our kitchen and our diet. You cannot avoid millets in Karnataka; there are so many. You only need to look around.

Ragi, or finger millet, is a great favourite here on the southern edges of the state, used to make dosas and mudde (big ragi balls) to be eaten with mutton or vegetable curry—you have to swallow the mudde, not chew it, so be careful not to, well, choke. There is jowar, or sorghum, in the north, used in jolada rotis—but even more as cattle feed. There’s a whole universe of delightfully named millets that are only just being rediscovered by the general public, including saame (little millet), oodalu (barnyard millet) and sajje (pearl millet).

There couldn’t be a better time for millets.

The United Nations, acting on a proposal from India, is celebrating 2023 as the international year of millets. Millets, the first plants to ever be domesticated by humans, have been celebrated in recent years for their nutritious properties, ability to withstand adverse climatic conditions and use limited water—all of which make millets a particularly good idea as the planet spirals into crisis.

Here in Karnataka, India’s largest grower of millets, the government is enthusiastically supplying ragi and jowar to the public distribution system that feeds poor families, with various departments, from social welfare to education, told to use millets. The latter hopes to introduce—depending on the region—ragi mudde or jowar rotis in midday meals.

None of this is easy because millets, despite the buzz around them, are nowhere as popular as wheat and rice. Cultivation has fallen globally over the decades as people moved to high-yield wheat and rice. Millets were always harder to grow and process, even though they were unmatched as nutritional powerhouses.

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With all things good, it’s best to do millets in moderation. They are not as easy to digest as wheat and rice, they can fiddle with your thyroid gland since they have goitrogens that can retard iodine absorption, and their high fibre content could cause constipation.

We have been early adopters of millets and our experience tells us to balance them with wheat and rice. Yet, I have always been reluctant to cook millets because of the extra effort they require. Last week, though, that extra effort produced an excellent millet pulao. I have realised that millets need more bells and whistles than rice, so adding spices and vegetables is not only a good idea but makes it a kind of a pulao, a one-pot dish.

I had the millet with pappu—Andhra dal made with red lentils or masoor—and two pieces of roast chicken. Of course, you don’t need to add chicken (he added hastily for the benefit of his vegetarian readers).

I sent some over to my mother. “It’s nice," my mother messaged. “You can add dried fish or dried prawns." Now, there’s an idea.

Foxtail Millet Pulao
Serves 6

Ingredients
1 mug foxtail millet
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large tomato, chopped
1-inch piece ginger, chopped
6-7 garlic pods, smashed and chopped
1 green chilli, chopped
One-fourth green pepper (capsicum), chopped into small bits
One-fourth red pepper, chopped into small bits
5-6 runner beans, chopped into small bits
1 carrot, chopped into small bits
1 tbsp parsley leaves, chopped
1 tbsp mint leaves, chopped

Whole spices: 1 bay leaf, 3 star anise pieces (the star fingers), 5 peppercorns, 3 cloves
Powdered spices: half tsp red chilli powder, 1 tsp coriander powder
Salt to taste
3-4 tsp vegetable oil

Method

Wash the foxtail millet gently in three changes of water until it runs reasonably clear. Soak in fresh water in the fridge for an hour (millet can ferment). Remove, wash again and drain water. I did all this carefully by hand because the millet is fine, using a colander is difficult.

Heat oil gently in a pressure cooker. Add whole spices until they begin to crackle. Add onions until lightly brown. Add chopped tomatoes, ginger, garlic and green chilli. Sauté for a minute. Add a little water if the bottom of the cooker starts to brown and the ingredients start to stick. Add the red and green peppers, carrot, beans and the powdered spices and sauté for a minute. Add salt. Add the parsley and mint leaves to the millet and mix gently. Add one to one-and-a-half mugs water for 1 mug of millet. Close cooker and let two whistles go. Switch off and let the steam be released on its own. Open when all pressure is gone. Adjust salt, fluff up with a fork. Even after transferring to serving dish, keep fluffing up, otherwise millet sticks very easily.

Non-vegetarian variations: Perhaps 1 cup of dried prawns at the end before pressure-cooking. It should go well with kheema as well—add around 250g with the vegetables.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11 on Twitter.

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