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There is more to millets than just porridge and pancakes

When it comes to millets, the possibilities are endless. Chefs are incorporating the ancient grains in risottos, soups and salads

A barnyard millet dish from Aragma
A barnyard millet dish from Aragma

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Kiara Arora, a Bengaluru-based tech professional, has been following the discourse on millets, reading about their resilience and role in food security. Her interest is fairly recent—when she looks back at a childhood spent in Delhi, she doesn’t have any memory of a millet dish. When she moved to Bengaluru a year ago, she saw her landlady whip up traditional ragi (finger millet) dessert and pancake recipes. “They were delicious. However, I couldn’t even tell the different types apart, let alone figure out how to cook with them,” she says.

As someone who liked modern Indian and continental fare, Arora wasn’t keen on cooking traditional pancakes and puddings. And there was no one to guide her on the possible combinations in soups, salads—until she started attending millet food festivals, chatting with home chefs and reading about initiatives such as the Millet Revival Project started by The Locavore, led by chef Thomas Zacharias, with support from the Rainmatter Foundation, a Bengaluru-based not-for-profit, eight months ago. It aims to bring in diverse perspectives and build purpose-driven communities. Today, she knows verified sources of millets in the market, and why foxtail millet has a cooking process different from, say, barnyard.

Like her, many others—especially those keen on a healthy lifestyle—have followed the discourse on ancient grains but don’t know how to cook with them. Chefs are trying to change that by curating special sit-down meals to not just showcase the diversity of millets in India but also create awareness about the ways in which the recipes can be replicated at home.

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I, for one, keep going back to the millet chicken biryani recipe shared on The Locavore website by Janagiamma, a leader from the Nilgiris’ Kurumba community. It is easy to make at home and extremely flavourful. The Millet Revival Project note on the website describes the project as an attempt to “facilitate a gradual incorporation of millets into our diets, as well as create a space for meaningful conversation and engagement so that we can tap into the resilience of millets while also rediscovering its taste”.

In its first phase (till May), the project has become a space for recipes, techniques and information on sourcing millets. “There is still a lot of ignorance and misconceptions around the grains. That’s why we felt that engaging with stakeholders in the food system, creating a cooking lab, looking at policy, and creating a resource bank will allow for the shift in habits to happen in a more sustainable way,” says Zacharias.

Restaurants too are stepping up. “The whole idea of our special meals is to allow our guests to make meaningful changes, inspired by our recipes, in their daily lives,” says Poornima Somayaji, founder of the Pune, Maharashtra-based food studio Aragma, which hosts private dining experiences, even ticketed dinners. The menu features modern cuisine cooked with local, everyday ingredients sourced from forests and farms around Pune.

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 ‘Jowar’ batter-fried chilli basil fish at ITC Hotels
‘Jowar’ batter-fried chilli basil fish at ITC Hotels

Somayaji and her team have included several millet dishes in the Aragma menu, which includes a dish made with Proso millet milk, paired with pickled lotus stem, spice-tossed confit yam, onion chives and spring onion oil. A bestseller recipe highlights barnyard millet, inspired by head chef Amit Ghorpode’s visit to his family farm at Sangli, where the team was treated to a simple millet dish. At Aragma, it has taken the form of steamed millets with a peanut-coconut milk curry.

The team’s fascination with the grains started while researching long-forgotten recipes. “In Maharashtra, jowar (sorghum) is made into a bhakri. But the current generation has no idea how to make it. We decided to give a modern context to tradition with dishes like ragi tarts and kodo (cow grass) millet crisps. When guests saw the unique ways in which the grains were being used in Aragma, they started asking us for recipes. Today, we are happy to be part of a change,” says Somayaji. The team also creates awareness about the seasons in which particular millets ought to be consumed and in what quantity in order for them to be assimilated by the body.

Such efforts have amplified since the United Nations declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets. Recently, Manisha Bhasin, executive corporate chef, ITC Hotels, curated dishes from across the world as part of a sit-down meal, and a curated buffet, at the ITC Maurya in Delhi. The selection included jowar and makkai (corn) tikki, jowar-batter fried chilli basil fish, puffed amaranth and vegetable pie, amaranth mushroom arancini, chicken Mexican bean and pearl millet soup.

Bhasin and her team have consistently created awareness about the ancient grains. In 2010, ITC, as part of its Responsible Luxury initiative, enhanced millet offerings in the breakfast spread in a segment called Signature Mornings. And then last year, a millet programme was launched across hotels in India—in buffets for lunch and dinner and breakfast at the 24x7 restaurants—in diverse genres such as Asian, continental and Indian. “This is how we move forward. We have neither limited ourselves to the traditional and the indigenous, nor to vegetarian fare. It’s a misconception that only vegetarian dishes can be made with millets; rather, they pair really well with poultry and meats,” says Bhasin. “As you continue to work with millets, year after year, you realise each has a different application—some work very well as a stuffing, some as pulao, some in a pudding.”

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In Chennai, food historian Rakesh Raghunathan is showcasing millets as part of The Golden Grain, a pop-up at the Amethyst’s Wild Garden Cafe, on till 9 April. One highlight is a 12th century Russian fisherman’s soup, ukha (pronounced OOH-hwha). This rich broth has traditionally featured millets, and, sometimes, a shot of vodka for warmth. Raghunathan has created a mix of the indigenous and the modern with dishes like a millet-based chocolate pudding, millet berry bake, and a payasam-like dish called hachike made by the Nilgiris’ Badaga community. His aim: to create awareness among customers and protect the interest of farmers.

“I was documenting indigenous community cuisines in the Nilgiris, and an old man was watching me intently. He came up to me and said that when he was a young boy, the poor had ready access to millets. It was the rich and the affluent who consumed polished rice,” he reminisces. Today, however, the situation has been reversed. In every indigenous community hamlet, the community kitchen, subsidised by the government, features only polished rice and wheat. They no longer have access to millets, which was once such an integral part of their diet. “I was speechless. Through the festival, I have tried to create awareness about indigenous recipes, so that the impact is felt by the producers as well,” says Raghunathan.

Zacharias too is keen to ensure farmers are not exploited. “For that, we are actively looking at the policy changes that need to be made,” he says. The team is also working on perceptions about millets. It recently held a two-day event in Shillong with the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society to promote millet consumption.

“The biggest problem was taste. They were just boiling the millets, eating it as a porridge. We got local chefs together and did a one-day workshop with them on cooking millet dishes with local ingredients accessible across the state and with minimal equipment,” says Zacharias. The menu of 20 dishes, paired with local curries, gravies and stews, was served to an audience that included millet growers, government representatives and consumers. “Interventions don’t need to be radical,” he says. “Small and sustained efforts across different geographies make all the difference.”

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