While growing up, we remember how our great-grandmothers would delight us with millet (ragi) rotis, served piping hot with homemade pickles or bowl of lentils. Our super-healthy winter meals centered around some of the finest super-grains, right from bajra (pearl millet) to jowar (sorghum) and ragi. My mother (says Shauravi) used to force me to eat ragi mude (balls of steamed ragi, a local Karnataka dish) almost every day! I was not a fan, but eventually developed a taste for it.
We would have jowar bajra porridge, green-mango-jowar salad, ragi khichdi (a millennial would call it risotto), and that’s how we fell in love with our gorgeous, Indian super-grain!
We don't know if we would necessarily want our kids to eat the exact way our great-grandmother ate. There are foods that both Meghana and myself (Shauravi Malik) have access to now that our grandmothers would never have seen in their lifetime. But then we asked ourselves again…shouldn’t we be celebrating the choices available in abundance in our own country?
Do you know that in a country like India, with immense diversity in food cultures, millets are staple food for some communities and entirely unknown among others?
We once travelled to Uttarakhand and spotted an aged-happy local serving kodo ki rotis to tourists. In Sikkim, millet may have been traditionally used for local brews (known as chaang), but now these grains are also key ingredients in the recipes of microbreweries in Bengaluru and Pune.
There are efforts being made to resuscitate this amazing grain! Apart from the health benefits in offering, millets’ revival also reflects a contemporary zeitgeist towards sustainability and return to traditional habits.
Goodness of Millets
We doubt if you might already know that finger millet (ragi) is loaded with 10 times more calcium than any other cereal crop. Millets are rich sources of fibre, Vitamin B-Complex and minerals. So, just imagine, getting your entire family’s energy levels up and receiving outstanding physical strength from a nutritious meal prepared out of nothing, but millets?
Additionally, millets are broadly classified into two categories. One is major millets, which includes the likes of pearl millet (bajra) and sorghum (jowar). The second category of millets is known as minor millets, and includes finger millet (ragi), kodo millet, barnyard millet, little millet, proso millet and foxtail millet. These millets are known across many regions of the country, where they are referred to by local names.
Rich in dietary fibre and low glycaemic index, jowar (sorghum) helps control and prevent Type II diabetes. Studies show that Sorghum’s fibre, magnesium, Vitamin E, phenolic compounds and tannins content can lower the sudden increase of blood glucose and insulin levels.
Foxtail millet is a general source of strengthening nutrients for muscles, bones, blood and skin. It also helps control diabetes. A diet including foxtail millet may improve glycaemic control and reduce insulin, cholesterol and fasting glucose in Type II diabetes patients.
Whether its’s major or minor millets’ , they are all loaded with nutrition.
Hence the Need for Its Revival
With growing concerns about the limited nutritional benefits of dominant crops like rice, wheat and maize, attention has shifted to bringing back ancient and forgotten grains in our daily diet. In India, millets are grown on about 15 million hectares with annual production of 17 million tons and contribute 10 percent to the country’s food grain basket. There is perhaps no better time for a millet revival than now.
And…Along Comes Quinoa
Food isn’t just eaten anymore; it is shot and ‘Instagrammed’ for the world to see. Consumers in urban locales – increasingly well-travelled and connected globally via the Internet and social media – are eager to try out new ingredients.
Changing preferences have led to innovation, a sort-of- a new type of “green revolution” that focuses on prepackaging fresh vegetables, salads and more. The new food revolution wants us to raise our concerns about gluten and desire to discover new grains led to the introduction of something my grandmother would have never heard of!
And, therefore, one fine day we wake up to an advertisement showcasing ‘world’s greatest superfoods nowadays’ – (especially in the West)– quinoa, which is not available in an average Indian market because it’s not native to our country.
Millets Over Quinoa: Here’s Why
Many of us have probably read journalist and food activist Michael Pollan's famous quote, "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognise as food."
Well! There certainly is a reason for that. Millets is more than a notch up in terms of accessibility, affordability, and perhaps sustainability when compared with quinoa… And, quinoa is not even a grain, though; actually, it’s a pseudo-cereal. Pseudo-cereals such as buckwheat, amaranth and quinoa are seeds, so technically they’re not “true” grains.
We aren’t saying that team millets is far superior than the international look-alike. Despite millet’s generous protein content, quinoa offers even more and with all nine essential amino acids.
All we are actually saying is that one can stop obsessing over quinoa!
Millets as Key Ingredients for Food Security
Millets are imbued with nutritional benefits which have led to these grains being posited as a one-stop solution to resolve the crisis of malnourishment and food security issues.
Millets may not be the exclusive means to reducing malnourishment, but their documented benefits suggest that these grains can address the gaps in contemporary dietary habits to a large extent.
Millets aren’t beneficial only for our health, but also for the planet and agricultural communities, offering sustainable solutions to water scarcity and extreme weather conditions resulting from climate change.
The effects of climate change are deeper and more widespread than one might generally imagine. As rainfall dwindles and/or becomes erratic, agricultural productivity is altered and reduced. Low yield leads to drastic losses in gross national profits, food shortage and severely affects the socio-economic lives of agrarian communities, none more than smallholder farms.
A study backed by the World Bank Group states, “Drought can have health impacts, hamper firm productivity, accelerate the destruction of forests, and compromise agricultural systems.”
The threat to food security induced by climate change is one of the greatest concerns in a world with rising human population and dwindling natural resources. In looking for new-age strategies to control climate change and maintain adequate food production, the attention of governments, policy makers and research bodies is turning towards ancient food grains like millets in order to secure the future. The familiar proverb “old is gold” may well describe these grains that have survived and sustained communities in the face of changing weather conditions across millennia.
Millets as Drought-Safe Crops
As droughts continue to leave farmers stricken in states across India, from Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu to Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, millets offer the possibility of relief for the community and a means of ensuring nutritive supplements to staples like rice and wheat. Millets are suitable to be grown in regions with rainfall between 200 mm to 500 mm. While sorghum requires more than 400 mm rainfall to thrive, pearl millet 17 flourishes in areas with annual rainfall of 350 mm. Moreover, small millets like finger millet, foxtail millet, barnyard millet, little millet and proso millet grow in many southern and central Indian states where annual rainfall dips below 350 mm.
The Idea Is to Look at What Is Easily Available in the Local Biodiversity
Switching completely to millets isn’t what we recommend. It’s not a great idea to be only consuming a single grain. You need to mix it up depending on your health.
Millets have found their place as a superfood in the world. The idea is to look at what is easily available in the local biodiversity.
While millets have been the food of marginalised communities and an appreciation of the merits of these grains must not make it exclusive to those who can only afford expensive grains.
Let’s truly celebrate the choices available in abundance in our own country.
(Shauravi, co-founder of Slurrp Farm, has worked in the Consumer, Healthcare and Retail Advisory team at J.P. Morgan. She was an Investment Manager at Sir Richard Branson’s Group Holding entity at the Virgin Group in London.
Meghana, co-founder of Slurrp Farm, was an Associate Principal at McKinsey & Company in Delhi where she led the public health practice. She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, a BA in Computation as a Rhodes Scholar from Oxford University , among other accomplishments.)
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