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Foxtail millet pulao with chicken and spinach. Photo: Samar Halarnkar
Foxtail millet pulao with chicken and spinach. Photo: Samar Halarnkar

Pearl, foxtail and other old grains

We adore couscous and swoon over quinoa. But what India really needs is to get re-acquainted is with navaane and jowar.

I had couscous the other day. It was possibly somewhat rancid and past its consume-by date. Normally, Halarnkar constitutions are iron-clad and tend to ride roughshod over dodgy foods that raise gastric concerns. But that night, my stomach burbled, I burped repeatedly and—well, I will spare you some of the gorier details—I had an uncomfortable night.

Now, discomfort—digestive or otherwise—is not unusual, but because cardiologists list it as one of the precursors to more serious cardiovascular problems, I tend not to entirely ignore it, knowing that one of my secondary arteries is a little clogged. In the course of having transformed my lifestyle over the past two years, the wife and I have drawn up a list of chapati substitutes because I cannot possibly have chapatis day in and day out. Couscous was one of those approved replacements, along with quinoa, brown and other nutrient-filled rice, the coarse, earthy bread baked by an inventive local baker and dalia (broken wheat).

Of these, only dalia and some rice varieties are really indigenous. Couscous—granules of steamed and dried durum wheat—is an import from North Africa, and there was no telling how stale the expensive box in our larder might be. So, too, with quinoa, a wheat-free alternative of South American origin, eulogized in the West as a superfood with diverse nutritional advantages.

“We should just stick to local food," the wife said after the couscous episode. “You’ve always said this, and you should practise it." This is indeed true. I have written before of my refusal to carry Indian spices and ingredients during fellowships or other assignments abroad, my shunning of foreign foods in local supermarkets and my avoidance of exotic herbs and spices that friends and family bring me from abroad.

So why was I not using some of Karnataka’s super-healthy local grains, such as oodhalu (barnyard millet), sajje (pearl millet), jowar (sorghum), ragi (finger millet) and navane (foxtail millet)? I suppose I was unfamiliar with most millets, although they are some of the oldest and most nutritious food on earth. Well, not unfamiliar to their taste, having grown up in small-town Karnataka. Hand-pressed jowar or jolada rotis were a staple when I was a boy in the arid expanses of the Deccan, and I had learnt to eat and enjoy ragi mudde (balls) with chicken curry when I travelled in the lush southern plains, the Bayaluseeme. I say “learnt" because when you pick a piece off a ragi mudde, you swallow, you don’t chew—it will stick in your teeth if you do.

I was mainly unfamiliar with the cooking requirements of many local foods, except ragi dosas, which I used to churn out for breakfast regularly from package mixes before I realized all packed foods were stuffed with heart-unfriendly sodium, a key preservative. It did not help that I had settled into a comfort zone of foods that I knew were heart-friendly and that I knew how to cook easily.

That’s a key word—easily. Many of the millets, like nutrient-rich rice varieties, take longer to cook and use more water than white rice. Some hits and misses are unavoidable. I had just not taken the leap.

Physical discomfort and mental guilt are strong motivating factors, and beset as I had been with both, making friendship—so to say—with millets appeared to be a sensible thing to do. To re-acquaint myself, and you dear reader, with millets, I had a quick glance at their nutritional properties. These, I was reminded, are considerable. Millets have heart-protecting and tissue-repairing abilities. They are supposed to lower the risk of, among other things, breast cancer, childhood asthma, type 2 diabetes and gallstones. Millets are whole grains and so, excellent sources of fibre, an important nutrient to lower cardiovascular risk. And since millets have no gluten, they are perfect for that great modern scourge of gluten allergy, common in the West and steadily growing in India.

Millets are a historically and quintessentially Indian food, and the receding of its culinary memory has, in some part, been responsible for the tide of so-called lifestyle diseases, including cardiovascular ailments, obesity, diabetes and cancer—and the high rates of malnutrition in India. “Both the ends of this grim spectrum are at least partly due to changing food habits, loss of millets from the diet being one," says the website of the Indian Institute of Millets Research (yes, it exists, in Hyderabad), which calls them “grains for the future" and “harbingers of the evergreen revolution", a reference to their hardiness and nutritive character.

Since Karnataka is a crucible of India’s great millet tradition and future possibilities, surely I could at least make them my present? I could not see myself pounding out jowar rotis or my family swallowing ragi mudde, but it helped that we knew dalia, similar in consistency to many millets when cooked. Where could I get them? The wife stared at me. Had I not seen the pack of saame (little millet) in the larder? And had I not noticed that the neighbourhood grocery store had many racks of local millet varieties? I had not.

As I mulled these misses, she sent me an email about “Millet Sunday", a millets-cooking-workshop-cum-buffet organized in Bengaluru by a millet retailer called Kaulige Foods (Kaulige.com). Just then I got news of a relative (in his 30s) undergoing an angioplasty and a friend (in his 40s) getting a heart attack. Given my experience with lifestyle change, I find myself a pit stop for those seeking recovery routines. These new stories—alarmingly and increasingly common across India—spurred me to hop on to my motorcycle and return with a packet of navane, which wound up in the recipe below. My friendship with millets has begun. I hope it will flourish.

Foxtail millet pulao with chicken and spinach

Serves 2

Ingredients

1 cup foxtail millet, wash, drain and set aside

2 cups water

1 medium tomato, chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

1 bunch of spinach, washed, drained and chopped fine

1 chicken thigh, grilled, shredded or cut in small pieces (I used leftovers)

4-5 large garlic cloves

One-fourth-inch piece of ginger

1 green chilli (deseeded, if needed)

1 tsp olive or vegetable oil

2 tsp coriander, chopped fine

Salt, to taste

Mix in a little water

Half a teaspoon Kashmiri chilli powder

One-fourth teaspoon turmeric

1 flat teaspoon garam masala

Method

Make a paste of the ginger, garlic and chilli. Mix foxtail millet with water and steam in a pressure cooker on medium heat. After one whistle, reduce to low. After another whistle, take off flame and allow the steam to dissipate. Open, empty the millet into a plate and fluff with a fork so the grains do not stick. Heat oil in a non-stick wok. Lightly fry the ginger-garlic-chilli paste for a minute. Sauté onions until translucent. Add the spices mixed in water and cook for a minute or so. Add tomato, sauté on low heat. Cover and cook till it starts to fall apart. Add spinach and toss until cooked. Add salt and mix. Add chicken and coriander. Add millet and mix well. Smoothen out any lumps.

For a vegetarian version, drop the chicken.

This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes the fortnightly column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He tweets at @samar11.

Write to Samar at ourdailybread@livemint.com

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