It was a food mystery that had some shoppers transfixed in Dilli Haat, an open-air crafts bazaar in Delhi. People milling about an organic food outlet were staring at palmfuls of earthy red seeds. “Rai!” declared a middle-aged man wearing an embroidered Himachali topi. Muteness from the rest. Other food Karamchands sniffed the grains. Finally, a woman in a black Naga shawl asked the boy at a Navdanya stall, “Kya hai?” Clearly used to people getting stymied by millets, he said with a toothy smile, “Mandua hai, we make rotis from it,” (mandua is a millet known as ragi in the south).
Long before mounds of rice and stacks of roti got heaped in the centre of our thalis, millets or mota anaj like ragi, jowar and bajra, the oldest foods known to humans, were eaten extensively in Indo-China. Millets sustained the people of Harappa. In Kalidasa’s theatrical opus, Shakuntala held out for kutki (little millet). Yet 40 years after the Green Revolution granted us abundances of rice and wheat, it also caused a silent grain-drain, of millets from our fields and kitchens. Chappatis edged out bajra-jowar bhakris in Maharashtra, rice obscured ragi-mudde in Karnataka and Punjabis forgot kodrey di roti and chibbran di chutney made by their nanis. This rice-wheat takeover turned us into cereal-browsers who can barely recognise pale-white jhangora and grey-brown kuttu.
Yet it’s these ancient grains, not rice and wheat, which will be our miracle future foods, as India stares at a terminal farming, fodder and water crisis. It’s going to take a grain revolution to usher us towards food security, and millets are super-foods which can sustain our soil and our stomachs, vouches the Millet Network of India (Mini), a forum of 145 institutions and individuals comprising farmers, scientists and environmentalists. “This is the moment of millets, climate change has offered us the opportunity to correct our mistakes,” says PM Satheesh, convenor of Mini.
It takes 4,500 litres of water to grow a Kg of rice, a methane-emitting crop. Most millets are rain-fed and methane-free. Thermally-sensitive wheat will wither in our fields if global warming causes a 2º C rise. Heat-defying bajra can germinate upto 50º. We’d save an estimated Rs 140,000 crore on fertiliser and power subsidies; millets don’t depend on such resources.
“The future belongs to nations with grains and not guns,” said our guru of agriculture, MS Swaminathan, at the 97th Indian Science Congress this January. A millet revival would bring an additional 24 million fallow acres under cultivation and produce 25 million tones of extra foodgrains, fodder and pulses. It would put food on the plates and money in the hands of underprivileged people in dry poor regions. That’s why Mini wants millets back in the limelight and part of the Public Distribution System.
The Green Revolution wiped out 45 per cent of millet cultivation areas across India. “In Maharashtra, farmers insisted on eating jowar bhakri for strength and stamina. Within 20 years those same people mostly eat wheat, because wheat cultivation has taken over jowar areas,” says Chanda Nimbkar, a governing body member of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
Refusing to call them ‘coarse grains’, Mini has re-dubbed millets as nutri-cereals. They’re five times nutritionally superior to rice and wheat. A lunch of amaranth bhaji, kuttu ka pakora and jhangora kheer, is more than a meal. It’s a prescription for a hungry and health-starved people, after which you don’t have to pop mineral supplements. Bajra, with 16 gm of iron, is a natural-grown pill for our highly anemic population. These traditional weaning foods have also been recast as nourishment for HIV-positive people.
“The disappearance of millets in the Indian diet has been a civilisational loss,” says KC Raghu, the food scientist and managing director of Pristine Organics, a Bangalore-based ISO 2200 and organic certified company. “South Indians eat mountains of rice and rivers of sambhar; we have to replace this,” he says. Raghu has researched and developed a range of innovative traditional health foods such as millet biscuits, breakfast cereals and a multi-millet atta mix. “Millets have more unknown food components than we know about, like 25,000 natural antioxidants,” he says.
To capture these food values and popularise millets among harried-housemakers, The Central Food Research Technology Institute (CRFTI) in Mysore has also been developing technologies for millet-based idli-vada mixes and, believe it or not, millet-based noodles and Kurkure-like snacks. Also, kids and adults can start their day with ragi malt (along the lines of badam milk) or smoodle up millet noodles when they’re feeling snacky. “Besides being health-giving, these natural nutraceuticals have anti-diabetic, anti-cholesterol, anti-ageing and anti-cancer properties,” says Dr Nagappa Malleshi, a food scientist formerly with CRFTI.
“People talk about slow food, without knowing that it also means something which you digest slowly,” says Raghu. Oven Organica, Pristine Organic’s biscuits with a fibre-to-energy ratio which meets international health recommendations, is made from multi-millets varieties. With no added sugar, they’re suitable for diabetes and cholesterol management. Millets are also safe for people with celiac disease (a gluten intolerance illness significant in North India due to high wheat consumption). “Jowar does not contain gluten,” says Dr Malleshi.
Urban nutritionists are engineering a millet comeback on the health food shelves. Swishing them up as supergrains and dishing out as bajra muffins, amaranth rolls and millet puffs. In Delhi’s elite Defence Colony market, some vendors have ragi, bajra and kuttu ka atta displayed outside their stores, replacing potato chips. Ajay Mahajan, an environmentalist with the Beej Bachao Andolan, who brings millets to the Dastkar Nature Bazaar, shares, “From saying, ‘hello what is this?’, in five years there’s been a sea change in the response to millets.”
Café Ethic is India’s only all millet restaurant, (in Zaheerabad town, 100 km from Hyderabad), where they’re serving korra (foxtail millet) dosa, crispy korra murrukus, saama (little millet) khichdi and Jonna (jowar) Pelala Laddu (laddus). If you can’t get to Café Ethnic, don’t wander far from home. Consider these fasting foods that are our living link to ancient grains like varai chi khichdi flavoured with peanuts and coconut, rajgira parathas spiked with chilli and ginger… Go, ask your nani and eat as the gods deemed. Or wait for jowar noodles and bajra Kurkure to hit the markets.
A switch-over to these supergrains could bring about a positive societal change. GM technology hasn’t been developed for jhangora and kodu. “Flourishing millet cultivation would allow a flourishing of indigenous knowledge, if formal scientific research challenges it,” says Satheesh. If bajra, ragi and their brethren come centrefield after being pushed aside by predatory rice and wheat, “it will herald a more equitable society away from irrigated, endowed farming areas, towards poorer dryland regions of India”, elaborates the millet-proselytiser. With promises of food security, better health and livelihoods, the Year of Biodiversity is a perfect time to sow these bio-diverse grains. They’ll empower our earth and our people. And re-acquaint strangers like us with ancient miracle seeds that are capable of sprouting from our soil without chemical dependency.