Home / Industry / Agriculture /  How an orphan crop became a rich man's favourite snack

West Sikkim/New Delhi: From far, it looked like a giant football field, with a Ferris wheel thrown in right at the entrance. This spacious ‘mela ground’, on the banks of a river in Rimbi, west Sikkim, is surrounded by gorgeous hills.

The ground buzzed with activity on a January winter morning. A few pop-up joints readied chickens for roasting; a stall showcased forest produce of the tiny Himalayan state; ethnic tribes, including the Lepchas, Bhutias and Limbus, displayed traditional attire, craftsmanship and cuisine from petite tents they set up. On one corner was a police jeep turned roving library for school children to borrow or exchange books.

One of the stalls in this village fair, called the Rimbi Maghe Mela, curated by the district administration of Gyalshing, was by Yangchen Doma Bhutia, a revenue surveyor in her early 30s. Bhutia, also an amateur baker, was goaded by the newly appointed district collector Yishey Yongda to showcase how finger millets, which are still grown in the state but fast disappearing from diets, can be used to make baked fare.

Bhutia was busy arranging millet cookies and cupcakes which she baked with some help from recipes she saw on YouTube. “I would prepare a batch and let my seven-year-old daughter taste them. The final version had her approval," Bhutia said, a smile crossing her face.

Next to her stall, a women’s self-help group served millet pancakes. And the tribes offered a traditional fermented millet based alcoholic beverage known as Tongba, when the state agriculture minister came visiting.

The Tongba, usually served in bamboo flasks, is slowly fading into oblivion. So are millet balls cooked with rice or made into a porridge, another traditional dish. Low yields, labour intensive cultivation and arduous home-based processing has made finger millets, known as Kodo in Sikkim, an expensive occasional fare cooked during ceremonies and festivals. One kg of finger millet flour costs about 150 in local markets, over three to four times the cost of wheat or rice. This pushes families to switch to calorie dense cereals instead of nutritious millets.

Farmers across India still grow close to 10 different types of major and minor millets—often in low-fertile, rain-fed and hilly areas—and the country remains the largest producer globally. But area under millet farming plunged from 37 million hectares in 1965-66 to 12 million hectares in 2021-22. After India launched a Green Revolution programme to ensure food security and reduce dependence on food-aid in the mid-60s, rice and wheat took over gradually.

India still produces more millets now (16.4 million tonnes in 2021-22) than in 1965-66 (14.2 million tonnes), largely due to improved productivity. But current production levels have not kept pace with rising population, with mass consumer preference tilted in favour of cheaper cereals. Millets, therefore, came to be dubbed as an ‘orphan crop’.

But a change is in the air. The United Nations, on India’s insistence, declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets. Millets are not just climate smart crops—requiring less of water and chemical inputs—they are healthier too. Due to low glycaemic index, a measure of how fast carbs turn into glucose in the bloodstream, they are suited for diabetics. Millets are gluten-free and rich in fibre, iron, calcium and other micronutrients, which explains a resurgence of millets in the diets of the urban rich even though the masses tend to prefer cheap calorie dense cereals.

Today, urban consumers are spoilt for choice with scores of brands selling millets in packaged and ready-to-eat variants. These include cookies, health bars, breakfast cereals, pancakes, dosa-Idli premixes, and milk substitutes made from sprouted millets for the lactose intolerant. Fine dining restaurants and premium hotels are serving an array of millet dishes to the discerning customer.

The Buddha Bowl

For instance, Under the Neem, a high-end café, about 30 minutes’ drive from Gurugram, sports a new winter menu, with 23 dishes where millets are paired with items as diverse as avocado and lamb. It is miles away from Bhutia’s world of rustic millet cookies and home cooked porridge. On a chilly Saturday evening, the café, with a sprawling outdoor space, resembled a leisurely picnic spot: children played on a swing and made their moves on a giant chess board; some walked their pets or took a leisurely stroll in an adjacent kitchen garden where winter greens are grown without any chemical nutrients. With sundown, the space came alive with suspended lights and the crackling sound from portable fire pits.

Ravitej Nath, a former chef at Oberoi Hotels and now director of Karma Chalets, which houses Under the Neem, said that millets blend well with diverse cuisines and need not be positioned as a moral lecture on healthy eating. “We have incorporated millets in our dishes since 2018 but this year we decided to put it upfront on the menu to inform customers why they are important," Nath said. “I am expecting the market to explode with more restaurants offering millet dishes."

Here is a slice of what Under the Neem offers. The Buddha Bowl, a salad resembling a miniature forest on the plate, is a literal riot of colours. It is a mix of avocado, foxtail millet, red quinoa, sesame, ginger glazed tofu, winter greens and pomegranate served with a citrus dressing. A popular soup, named Nimoli Wellness, is made with spinach, corn, coconut milk and toasted pearl millet. It creates a unique mouthfeel. A traditional gosht nihari—slow cooked tender mutton stew—incorporates millets seamlessly. A Moroccan lamb tagine is served with apricots, olives, barnyard millet and cumin pilaf. And an indulgent crispy banana waffle is made with winter berries, nuts, cream and toasted sorghum, a millet variety also known as jowar.

A decade back, offering something imported on the menu, like fish from Japan, asparagus from Peru or cheese from Italy, was something which five-star hotels boasted of. “Then, suddenly, importing these became super difficult (due to regulations and labelling requirements). This pushed many of us to look inwards. The focus shifted to regional cuisine. Food not just from South India but from Malabar or Kongu Nadu. In the process, chefs who used arborio rice from Italy (used to make risotto) re-discovered many ancient Indian grains," Nath said.

The challenge is how to include these grains in a fancy menu. “One may not want to have ragi (finger millet) rotis due to its rough and fibrous texture but a ragi taco with avocado and cheese is more acceptable… but working with millets requires some understanding and knowledge—which grains are best toasted; which ones are better boiled," Nath added.

Millets making an entry into elite spaces is not limited to boutique restaurants. For instance, nearly all ITC Hotels now serve a handful of millet-based dishes in its regular buffets. At the Pavilion restaurant at Delhi’s ITC Maurya, framed posters introduce customers to ‘the magic of the mighty millet.’ They can touch and feel raw grains kept in tiny sacks, next to the dishes. And millet dishes come with a separate label to distinguish them from the regular fare.

The items range from mix grain salads and a sumptuous jowar tadka dal (lentil soup) to sauteed vegetables with amaranth seeds, millet beetroot kebab and a delicious kodo halwa, a dessert.

On 25 January, Inox Leisure, a leading multiplex chain, unveiled a new menu for movie goers that includes items like millet risotto and finger millet pudding. A media release from the company stated it would “run a campaign to build awareness about the advantages of millets, for the citizens, farmers and the ecosystem at large, and to revive the forgotten glory of the miracle millets".

So, is this India’s quinoa moment? The fluffy grain, native to Peru and Bolivia, burst into the global culinary scene about a decade back resulting in rocketing demand which made it unaffordable for rural communities that had kept it alive for thousands of years.

“Quinoa backfired, but India is trying to make it more accessible to the average consumer. Our advantage is that we grow so many varieties. But we need to make sure our home-grown millets do not leave the farmers’ plates," said Manisha Bhasin, corporate chef at ITC Hotels.

Bhasin added that ITC’s journey with millets started with its belief in the ethos of sustainable and responsible luxury. “From Alert Meet (conference menus) to Signature Morning (breakfast specials), millets are now an integral part of our offering. Our goal is to make the consumer aware as well as promote guiltless indulgence that millets can offer," she said.

Jingle bells

While deteriorating health indicators, like hypertension and diabetes, gradually pushed urban consumers to adopt millets, it continues to be a regular staple in many parts of India. Some popular traditional dishes include steamed ragi balls and dosas in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, jowar and bajra flatbreads in Maharashtra and Rajasthan, and a spiced, boiled and stir-fried pearl millet morning snack known as Ghooghri (meaning jingle bells) in Gujarat.

“The awareness that millets can save one from various non-communicable diseases is certainly higher in urban areas and consumers there have access to information on how millets can be incorporated into diets," said Kavitha Kuruganti, convenor of Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, a policy advocacy group. The result? Nowadays, even small corner grocery stores in many states stock a variety of millets.

But it would be wrong to term the growing trend of millet consumption as an urban fad, warned Kuruganti. For instance, Timbaktu collective, a non-profit from Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh, now sells over 50 varieties of ready-to-eat millet products. REDS, another non-profit from the district, conducted an experiment where rural diabetics were put on a strict millet diet plan for three months. They saw their blood sugar levels normalize.

In rural Punjab, the home turf of Green Revolution, farmers are now growing millets for self consumption. Across Tamil Nadu, families are now using millet rice as an alternative to polished paddy rice to make traditional dishes like pongal and adai dosa. And Odisha’s millet mission has nurtured women growers who are running cafes and are selling a variety of processed millet products.

“While conducting live cooking sessions, I realized that urban families want to use millets but don’t know how to; it’s a juggle between taste and health. This pushed me to launch pre-mixes which can be cooked at home," said Bengaluru-based Archana Doshi, who has been running a popular recipe portal called Archana’s Kitchen since 2007. Her products include millet-based cake pre-mixes, foxtail millet noodles and multi-millet pasta.

“In terms of the market, consumers are more aware of the benefits of eating whole grains and millets. Now they can get products that are accessible and can be cooked more easily than trying to figure out what to do with the whole grains," Doshi added.

When this reporter ran a quick Twitter poll on the frequency of household millet consumption, 46% of the 604 who responded said they consume it at least once a week. About a quarter said they have never had millets before. A few complained why “eat it daily" was not an option in the poll.

While most food brands are not ready yet to dilute the unique selling proposition of popular products like ultra-processed instant noodles, some have started to tap into the health food market. For instance, in 2021, Tata Consumer Products acquired Soulfull which offers a range of millet-based breakfast products. And earlier in January, ITC revealed plans to acquire Yoga Bar, a nutrition-focused food company.

Yet, market volumes for millets are limited when compared to grains and pulses. “Actual consumption of millets is nowhere near what the hype suggests," said N Balasubramanian, CEO of 24 Mantra, a leading organic packaged food brand.

“With limited demand, large farmers are not interested in growing millets. But we can expect a step change with the government’s focus on promotion and marketing of millets."

(This reporter travelled to Sikkim as a guest of the Gyalshing district administration.)

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