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Cook millets like a chef

How to cook millets to retain their texture and impart flavour to salads, soups and risottos

Chicken Tikka, Pearl Barley Khichdi & Foraged Grains at Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra.
Chicken Tikka, Pearl Barley Khichdi & Foraged Grains at Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra.

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At the 74th Republic Day parade, the Indian Council and Agricultural Research (ICAR) created a tableau based on the theme of International Year of Millets 2023. It was decorated with saplings of jowar, ragi and bajra, and there was a huge rangoli with millet grains. Last month, a millet-only lunch was organised by Union Agricultural Minister Narendra Singh Tomar for members of the parliament. It is clear that millets have become a prominent area of interest for the government. But, it is not a recent change.

About seven years ago, chef Manu Chandra met the then Agriculture Minister Krishna Byre Gowda to discuss promoting millets. In a 2019 interview with The Hindu, Chandra who was the chef and partner at Toast & Tonic, said, ‘The whole millet movement started from this restaurant’. He made vegetable kibbeh with foxtail and kodo, ragi and jowar tacos, and ragi crepes stuffed with five spice shredded duck meat. He can be credited with bringing millets into the premium dining scene.

Cut to 2023, Indian chefs have gone all out to use millets in creative ways in salads, mains and desserts. Make a reservation at Olive, Comorin or The Bombay Canteen and you are bound to find a few dishes made with ragi, bajra or kodo.

Chef and restaurateur Raveena Taurani of Yogisattva in Mumbai is known for her moist cakes, cookies and brownies baked with finger millet flour. It’s one of her favourite millets, she shares and adds, “ I use it because it’s locally available, holds structure, and has a great flavour that’s somewhat on the sweeter side and works great for desserts.” Her baked goodies make for great gifts and guilt-free snacks to accompany a coffee break.

Culinary schools that emphasize perfecting French techniques of gastronomy don’t have millets on their syllabus. While Taurani discovered finger millets at a farmer’s market in Mumbai, chef Rahul Punjabi picked up the basics of cooking with millets in a restaurant in Australia. Punjabi joined Masala Library By Jiggs Kalra about a year ago. Before that, he polished his culinary chops by working with chef Peter Gilmore in Australia. “He (Gilmore) is really fond of having different textural elements to play around with. He would take little known Australian millets, like weeping willet, braise them, dehydrate them and then puff them for a crumbly texture. It enamoured me,” shares Punjabi.

Armed with this technique, he reimagined khichdi with tandoori chicken and millets. He deconstructs the steps of making it: Millets have the capacity to hold a good amount of water, and when they are braised, they get a slippery texture. To counter this, chefs emulsify with a lot of butter—a western approach to cooking but with Indian flavours. The dish is garnished with a mix of puffed millets like jowar, ragi and kuttu.“When we serve these dishes in our style, it adds a little bit of finesse. It’s a new dish, but it connects you to something you have eaten at home. I think it really ties in the experience of premium dining and offers something unique for the customer,” he shares. The chef is experimenting with ragi dosa for the next menu. As for the khichdi, it will continue to stay on the menu with different iterations.

Chef Taurani shares handy advise to cook millets at home:

Whole millets: Add some oil in a pan, toast them well before adding water. This ensures it doesn’t become mushy. When you toast, add a pinch of salt and spice it up with cumin, ginger and garlic. Instead of regular water, use vegetable stock which elevates the overall flavour.

Make millet pops: Take whole millets, rinse them well and dry thoroughly. Now, lightly coat them with garam masala or any Indian spice mix and add salt. Preheat an oven at 160 degrees Celsius. Place the millets on a baking tray, coat them with a drizzle of oil and put them in the oven. After five minutes, move them around. Bake for another 5 to 7 minutes until they pop. You can eat them as is, or use them to bulk up salads, garnish soups, risottos and even chocolate mousse.

Chef Punjabi's take on boiling millets to get the right texture:

Take whole foxtail or barnyard millet. You can emulsify with ghee, butter, mascarpone and crème fraîche. Add spices, like rosemary or oregano and even jeera, and the end result will please your palate. Another way is to cook it in around 10 to 12 times as much water (1:12 ratio). The extra water creates enough space for the starches to be released while each grain remains separate. Once it's cooked, pour it through a sieve and store the starch-filled water. Wash the grain in fresh water and you will get nice, fluffy grain that can be used in salads tossed with a nice lemon vinaigrette. The water can be used as a starch thickener, instead of corn starch. 

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