My first brush with millets was at an exhibition in Bengaluru some eight years ago, at a stall showcasing and selling different kinds of the grain. Being an advocate of healthy living, I gravitate towards local foods that are good not just for my family, but also to try out and recommend to others.

Apart from using malted ragi (finger millet) powder as baby food, millets were not used much in my family. It is, however, very popular in the regional cuisines of Karnataka where it is the primary carbohydrate, eaten as thick rotis or as steamed balls (ragi mudde) to be had with curries.

Thanks to my Tamil genes, the first thing I did with millets was to use it as a rice substitute and eat it with sambhar. Except for the slightly coarser texture as compared to white rice, which I did not mind at all, it was as good as rice. Next in line was trying out the “variety rice dishes" such as lemon rice, tamarind rice, tomato rice, vegetable pulao, etc. using millets instead of rice. As long as the millets were cooked just right and fluffy, these dishes tasted perfectly good. It was the logical thing to then try out breakfast dishes like upma, poha, idlis, dosa, etc. given that its high-fibre content keeps us full until lunch time. I was also very happy with the results of using millets in salads, appetizers and desserts, thereby proving the true versatility of this ingredient.

From millet-based cereals, smoothies, idli-dosa batters to restaurants with millet-only menus launching over the last few years, it looks like millets are seeing their heyday. So how do our local millets compare with quinoa? Nutritionally, quinoa does punch higher than millets in the protein, fibre, calcium and iron departments. Both grains are quite similar in terms of calories and are naturally gluten-free. Quinoa sells at a minimum of 800 a kg whereas millet costs anywhere between 90-180 a kg depending on the variety and the brand. Given the huge price difference, millet seems like the easier healthy eating choice compared to quinoa.

Given their current popularity and acceptance, it is good to note a few things before switching to a millet-heavy diet. Like many whole grains, millets also have phytic acid, which binds to minerals like zinc, iron, and calcium, thereby reducing their absorption by the body. It is possible to reduce the phytic acid by soaking (up to 24 hours), sprouting and fermenting—using all three processes wherever possible. Those with thyroid insufficiency should also eat millets in moderation, because of compounds that prevent absorption of iodine by the thyroid. Even though there are different schools of thought in this matter, it is best to consume millets in moderation, in rotation with other grains like rice and oats.

Different kinds of millets are suited to different dishes. Pearl millet is better off in a khichdi or as a flour to make rotlas (thick flatbreads from Gujarat). Foxtail is my favourite variety to make salads. When cooked right, it turns out light and fluffy, plus a ready canvas to absorb any flavours from the dressing. Little millet cooks to a creamy consistency, perfect for Indian desserts. The payasam recipe is an easy-to-make dessert to go with an Indian meal.

Jazzed up Foxtail Millet Salad

Makes 5-6 large servings

Ingredients

1 cup foxtail millet, soaked overnight

1 tsp vegetable oil

1 cup double beans (fresh) or use 1/3 cup dry

2-3 cups red amaranth leaves

2 large carrots, grated coarsely

1 cup mint leaves, roughly chopped

Dressing

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil or virgin coconut oil

4 tbsp lemon juice

1-2 tsp very finely grated ginger (or use 3/4 tsp ground ginger)

2 tbsp honey

3/4-1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1/2 tsp salt

Garnish

1/2 cup roasted peanuts, crushed

2-3 tbsp fresh coconut

Method

Drain the soaked millet. In a pot, bring 1 3/4 cups water to boil with a pinch of salt and 1/2 teaspoon oil. Add the drained millet and cook for 4-5 minutes or until the grain is cooked. Remove this into a sieve so that any excess water drains off. Spread on a baking tray or wide dish and allow to cool completely.

Pressure cook the double beans with enough water to cover and a pinch of salt for one whistle. Drain the cooked beans in a colander and allow to cool. If using dried double beans, soak the beans overnight, drain and follow the same cooking process.

Heat 1/2 tsp oil in a pan and saute the amaranth leaves on a high flame until wilted (3-4 minutes). Remove and cool.

Place all the dressing ingredients in a small mixer jar and pulse until you get a thick dressing.

In a large bowl, combine the cooked millets, cooked double beans, amaranth leaves, carrot and mint along with the prepared dressing. Top with crushed peanuts and fresh coconut. Serve immediately.

Little Millet Coconut Milk Payasam

2-4 servings

Ingredients

1/4 cup little millet

250 ml milk

1/2 cup powdered jaggery

1/4 tsp green cardamom powder (only seeds)

1 tbsp ghee

8-10 cashew nuts, roughly chopped

200 ml thick coconut milk

Garnish

Saffron strands and/or dried rose petals

Method

Soak the little millet overnight or for 24 hours. Drain well.

In a pan, heat 1 tsp ghee and saute the drained millet for 1-2 minutes. Add the milk and bring to a simmer. On a low flame, cook millet for 7-8 minutes in the simmering milk.

Meanwhile, in a heavy bottled pan, place the jaggery with 2-3 tbsp of water. Once the jaggery melts, let it simmer for 2-3 minutes until slightly thick. Sieve any impurities out.

In a small pan, heat the remaining ghee and fry the chopped cashew nuts until golden brown.

Once the millet is cooked, add the green cardamom powder, coconut milk and the jaggery syrup. On a low flame, bring to a simmer and turn off the flame.

Remove into a serving bowl and top with fried cashews and top with saffron and /or dried rose petals. Serve warm or chilled.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of The Everyday Healthy Vegetarian.

She tweets @saffrontrail

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