Return of the Millet

Return of the Millet

Sohini Dey breaks down everything you need to know about India's ancient superfood.

Millets have been hailed as a super-crop and the future of food. Which is somewhat ironic given that the earliest records of domesticating common millet in East Asia dates back 10,000 years.

However, the comeback of millets is significant in light of growing concerns on food security and sustainability. Their renewed relevance is especially important in countries like India, where millets can aid the monumental task of feeding an ever-growing population, and address concerns of malnutrition, recurrent drought and sustainable food traditions.

The Oxford Dictionary describes millet as “a type of plant that grows in hot countries and produces very small seeds”. The grains—consumed in many indigenous cultures, including the Indian subcontinent, over centuries—are derived from various warm-weather cereal crops that belong to the grass family, not dissimilar to rice and wheat. Many assume that millet is a single variety of grain, but there are, in fact, over 500 varieties of millets.

Millets are not just beneficial for human health and wellbeing, but are also crucial in the sustainability of the planet, offering solutions to water scarcity and extreme weather conditions that are a result of climate change.

With the long-standing popularity of rice and wheat, and their frequent use in daily meals and packaged food products, nutritionists suggest the need for alternate foods to fill the nutritional void created by the overconsumption of a small group of grains. This is important because a lack of dietary diversity is one of the major causes for malnourishment, not just in India but across the globe.

According to Dr B Dayakar Rao, principal scientist at IIMR, “Millets contribute substantially for food and nutritional security, and possess unique nutritional characteristics. They specifically have complex carbohydrates, rich in dietary fibre, as well as unique in phenolic compounds and phytochemicals having medicinal properties. Millets are a natural source of iron, zinc, calcium and other nutrients that are essential for curbing the problem of malnutrition in India.” Additionally, millets are also gluten-free grains, an necessity in the midst of increasing cases of celiac disease and gluten intolerances that restrict or entirely prohibit the consumption of wheat.

Despite the well-documented benefits of millets, their production and consumption remains limited. Lack of awareness is a big reason behind low consumption, combined with an assortment of factors that include skewed food culture, strenuous post-harvest processing, technological challenges and a need for greater government support.

Sethu Sanker’s company Ramjee Iniyaval manufactures millet. “Each type of millet has its unique taste and aroma. Since consumers are used to, even addicted to rice and wheat, it is very difficult to convert them to millet-based products,” he says. He also points out that many customers are not familiar with the taste, and don’t know how it cook it.

For customers used to decades of staple foods and packaged food based on rice and wheat, transitioning to millets can pose a challenge. There is no denying that millets are an acquired taste for most Indians who have become used to the taste of rice and wheat.

Barnyard Millet
aka sanwa, oodali, kuthiravaali, shamula, sama
Baryard millet has been an integral part of the diet in tribal and rural communities, especially in Uttarakhand, and are valued for their varied health benefits. It contains more iron than brown rice and wheat, has a significantly high protein content, and improves carbohydrate tolerance for Type II Diabetes patients. Find the recipe for Barnyard Millet Payasam here.

Finger Millet
aka ragi, mandua, nachni, moothari, kelvaragu
Ragi's original home is Ethiopia and Uganda, and came to India around 1800BC, where it formed an integral part of Karnataka's diet. Now hailed as an Indian superfood, it contains more calcium than milk, is full of phosphorus that helps with digestion, bone and dental health, and balances pH levels in the body. Ragi's high-fibre keeps you fuller and boosts metabolism. Find the recipe for Finger Millet Laddoo here.

Foxtail Millet
aka kangni, kaun, navane, thinal, korralu, kang
Foxtail Millet is one of the world's oldest cultivated crops, across East Asia to Europe. It is a generous source of nutrients for muscles, bones, and blood, and controls insulin and cholesterol levels in the body. Find the recipe for Foxtail Millet Biryani here.

Kodo Millet
aka kodon, harka, varagu, arikelu, kodra
Kodo millet is cultivated by tribal communities in the drier Himalayan regions, and is a rich source of Vitamin B, that strengthens the health of the heart and nervous system. It keeps blood sugar levels in check, and helps control cholesterol and prevent cardiac arrest. Here's how to make a Kodo Millet Upma.

Little Millet
aka kutki, kangaroo, save, swank, same, same, chama, samalu
The Little Millet can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. It is grown in small farm holdings around south and central India, and is full of protein and dietary fibre that helps regulate blood sugar and bowel health. Its natural antioxidant levels also help prevent cancer. Try a Little Millet Soup.

Peal Millet
aka bajra, bajri, sajjal, kamboo, sajjali
Grown in Gujarat and Karnataka since 1800 BC, this cereal is one of the better known millets in the country. It contains high levels of protein and magnesium (great in controling anxiety, insomnia, migraines and asthma), aids cardiac health and has very high folic acid content. Make Pearl Millet Dosa.

Proso Millet
aka barre, barragu, panivaragu, varigulu, cheni, vari
Famous in China, proso millet is an ancient grain still grown in east Europe, known for its health and immunity benefits. It ranks highest in protein value among millets, essential in upkeep of muscles, cartilage and blood. It is diabetes friendly, and a rich source of Vitamin B and folic acid. Here's a recipe for Proso Millet Samosa.

aka jowar, cholam, jola, jowari, juar, jonna
Sorghum is a staple in many African and Asian countries, and is especially beneficial for children, improving levels of calcium, iron, and focal acid. Its high dietary fibre helps control Type II Diabetes, and is considered a viable solution in tackling obesity. Try this recipe for Sorghum Muffins.

Excerpted from Slurrp Farm's White Paper on Millets, by Sohini Dey.. You can shop Slurrp Farm products here.