The ragi roti (finger millet) was as big but heavier than its north Indian cousin, the tandoori roti. It was made in a rough and ready outdoor stove.

Parvati Siddiah cooked them up for our lunch, one April afternoon. It was searing in the plains, but cooler, breezier where she lived, in the Bargur hills in Erode district, Tamil Nadu—just 15 kilometres from the Karnataka border.

I had visited Bargur in 2016 to study the dwindling native cattle and their keepers, as part of my documentation of the vanishing livelihoods of rural Tamil Nadu. E.N. Sivasenapathy, the then-president of Bargur Hill Cattle Breeders Association (now its secretary), took me around. Parvati’s father-in-law, C. Kenjen, then-secretary of the same association (and now its president), invited us for lunch on his leased farm in Thattakarai village.

Parvati got to work. She kneaded ragi flour and water into a stiff, tight dough. She pinched a big ball—as big as an orange—and slapped it between her hands. With her fingers and palms, she flattened it and transferred it to a damp muslin cloth, where she further pressed it with the heel of her palm.

Parvati flattens the dough to prepare the ragi rotis. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan
Parvati flattens the dough to prepare the ragi rotis. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan

The dough spread evenly in a thick circle. Then she lifted the wet roti with the cloth and placed it on the heavy iron pan, peeling back the fabric. The skin of the roti began to blister and the bottom browned.

She flipped it over, and when both sides were cooked, she slipped it beneath the pan, besides the firewood. There, she turned it with her hand, as if it were a wheel, and the roti cooked further, the skin hardening, while the centre remained soft and chewy.

Parvati cooks the ragi roti in a heavy iron pan. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan
Parvati cooks the ragi roti in a heavy iron pan. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan

Quick and efficient, Parvati literally had a roti assembly line going. She had a wet one on the cloth, one on the pan and one baking by the fire at any time. The only sounds came from the hissing iron pan, the crackling firewood and the soft thumps as the dough was slapped and shaped.

When she removed the roti from the tandoor, she smacked it to dust off the powdery ash and placed it—not in a stack but in a flower like arrangement—on a plate.

Popular staple

Ragi rotis are popular and common in Karnataka. Centuries ago, Parvati’s husband’s ancestors lived in the hills northeast of Bargur.

Married when she was 12 and into a family of pastoralists from the Lingayat community, Parvati, 30, and her husband Siddiah, 40, live with their two sons, parents-in-law and brother-in-law’s family. Although they speak Tamil fluently, they converse with each other and their children in Kannada.

Kenjen explained that Saint Mahadeshwara initiated his ancestors to worship Lord Shiva in the form of a Linga (the men wear this symbol around their neck) and converted them to vegetarianism. When they migrated to the Bargur hills (which fell in Tamil Nadu when the state borders were drawn), they brought with them their language, deities, hardy hill cattle and, of course, their food.

Ragi dishes have been the staple food of Bargur’s Lingayats for a few reasons. One, the hardy millet grows extensively in the hills, where families retain a large part of their crop for their own use.

Nutritionally superior, ragi packs in 10 times the calcium as wheat and one-and-a-half times its fibre content—it is a great food for the young and old.

The crop keeps well for years, and the cooked roti, for days. When the herdsmen go deep into the forest to graze their beautiful red and white Bargur cattle, they take a bundle of the rotis which, baked over high heat, lasts at least two or three days and a couple fills a man’s stomach adequately. It does not easily go “off", nor does it become inedible, Kenjen (who had spent his youth inside the forest) said.

Herdsmen carry ragi rotis with them when they travel into the forest to graze their cattle. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan
Herdsmen carry ragi rotis with them when they travel into the forest to graze their cattle. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan

Right accompaniment

At home, the rotis were eaten with chutney. Parvati made it by frying small onions (shallots) and garlic in oil. The onions were first sliced with an upturned sickle that she held down with her toes.

Parvati dry-roasts the red chillies. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan
Parvati dry-roasts the red chillies. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan

Then, she dry-roasted red chillies and curry leaves on the pan, pushing them around in batches with a towel until the leaves were hot and crisp and the chillies slightly blackened.

The ingredients are added into the mixer jar. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan
The ingredients are added into the mixer jar. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan

Next, she winnowed some groundnuts to remove the skin and threw in a handful into the electric mixer along with coconut and tamarind. Once ground, she heated a little oil on a blackened chatti (pan) and tossed in some more sliced small onions and curry leaves. When the onions turned pale and glassy, she took the pan off the heat, poured in the chutney and gave it a stir.

Parvati winnows the groundnuts to remove the skin before she tosses a handful into the mixie to make the chutney. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan
Parvati winnows the groundnuts to remove the skin before she tosses a handful into the mixie to make the chutney. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan

The rotis and chutney were served on a banana leaf freshly cut from the farm. It was a delicious meal, at once simple, sumptuous and memorable.

The food is served on a banana leaf. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan
The food is served on a banana leaf. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan

Parvati’s recipe for the coconut chutney (serves four):

Roasted groundnuts: a handful

Small onions: a handful

Garlic: 10 cloves

Tamarind: two-inch piece

Coconut: half, chipped into small pieces

Dried red chillies: Eight (reduce the number for a less spicier version)

Salt: to taste

Oil: two teaspoons

Mustard: half-a-teaspoon

Curry leaves: two stems

Method of preparation:

Take a pan and add a teaspoonful of oil. Dice the small onions and fry most of them and all of the garlic. Dry roast red chillies, mustard and curry leaves. Cool and grind this with coconut, groundnuts, tamarind, salt and little water to a smooth but firm paste.

For the tempering, take a spoonful of oil in the pan and splutter mustard seeds. Add some curry leaves, and saute the remaining small onions till they turn translucent.

Stir this in with the chutney.

Optionally, mix either a dollop of honey or a tablespoon of home-made curd into the chutney to enhance its flavour and nutrition.

For the ragi roti:

Add roughly a big handful of flour for each roti and knead it into a tight dough with water (traditionally, no salt or oil is added in its making).

Take a ball of dough and flatten it between your palms. Transfer it onto a wet muslin cloth and spread evenly and round. Place this on a hot pan and remove the cloth. Cook it well on both sides.

Serve hot with chutney.

Aparna Karthikeyan is an independent journalist currently living in Mumbai. She documented a series on vanishing livelihoods of rural Tamil Nadu, and volunteers with P. Sainath’s People’s Archive of Rural India.

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