From ragi and bajra to amaranth, the ancient grains of India are having their moment, and the comeback of the millet is more than just about eating clean

When I discovered homemade ragi laddoos from Pune for the first time, the brownish plum-hued roundels with a dense, sand-grain texture wowed my tastebuds with an earthy-meets-nutty flavour. Then there is the bajra khichri that my Gujarati neighbours send over on toasty winter afternoons each time I visit my home in Kolkata. But these are rare samplings of these ancient grains of India, so to speak.

So, when I touch base with renowned food historian, academic, and critic on the subject of the ancient grains of India, Pushpesh Pant, he points out that there is more than a bit of confusion about ‘ancient grains of India’. “Both rice and wheat are mentioned in Vedic texts. These have been found in the granary excavated in the Indus valley, and are our ancient grains. What people mean by this term is probably coarse grains — millets — not commonly used by city folk at home as staples,” he explains.

Under this category, Pant lists millets of different kinds such as bajra, madua, and ragi, which continue to be staples for the poor in arid regions, where rice or wheat don’t grow. “To this list one may add seeds used as cereal substitutes like amaranth, sorghum, and buckwheat,” says Pant, who believes that marketing hype supported by nutritionist endorsements has brought these ancient grains to the fore.

“This isn’t to deny proven health benefits of coarse, unrefined food items including millets and seeds, but I think it’s overstating the case that these are ‘go-to’ stuff,” he cautions.

According to Kurush F Dalal, an archaeologist, historian, and food anthropologist, the urban elite have rediscovered and are eating more millets, but they haven’t replaced wheat. “Unlike wheat and rice, there is no minimum support price for millets. So instead of going for expensive varieties sold as organic and artisanal, you can simply buy the nachni ragi, jowar, and bajra from the local kirana shops, mix them with your chapati flour, and get a low glycemic index slow-burning carb that’s far healthier to eat,” he says.

Dalal says the ancient grains of India are very standard wheat, rice, and barley. “There are grain varieties that were cultivated in the past and there are those that are cultivated today. So, all grains we eat today are modified from what we ate in the past. For instance, all the rice that we eat in India is a single species and single variety. People have hybridised these grains at different times and places and created local varieties. Farmers grow varieties that people buy,” he adds.

For Nishant Choubey, consultant chef for Michelinplated restaurant Indus in Bangkok and Connaught Clubhouse and Mishri in Delhi, among other restaurants, quinoa, barley, farro, amaranth, sorghum, and millets are list toppers, so far as variety is concerned. “Ancient grains are gaining popularity in India and appear in the list of topsearched products as they are less processed and boast more vitamins, minerals, and fiber than common grains,” he explains.

Choubey feels they are overtaking wheat as they are more nutritious, are a healthier alternative as they are unpolished, unrefined, and are a rich source of antioxidants and protein. They also carry rich flavours that enhance the overall taste of the cooked meal.

“Farro is starting to appear more on menus, so is quinoa. While working in a professional kitchen, I ate quinoa risotto in Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah and I introduced it in the tasting menu at The Roseate (formerly called Dusit Devrana), as quinoa biryani and gosh. Similarly, I did an Amaranth cheesecake at Connaught Clubhouse, and it was awesome. In fact, I did an entire tasting menu at Dilkushanbagh over ancient grains, where I showcased several grains in different forms — ragi karhi, caramelised onion and jowar sourdough bread, and quinoa nasi goreng to name a few,” he shares.

But he cautions that these millets don’t not break so easily and retain their texture once cooked, making it extremely efficient in stir-fry cooking.

There are also a number of home bakers who are replacing flour with millets, and they, too, face a challenge or two when baking with these ancient grains.

Delhi-based Rewati Rau, who owns Bikku Bakes, loves using millets including jowar, ragi, and bajra in her cakes, cookies, and brownies, apart from breads and buns. But only people who are aware of the health benefits of millets order them, and are very happy with the goodies.

“I often get feedback like: ‘I can’t believe this cake has healthy flour’. However, there’s a set of people who are very sure that baked stuff only means indulgence, so they even ensure that I’m not using anything remotely healthy to bake their cake. People love to order cookies with millets in them because eating a healthy cookie means keeping the guilt out of enjoying a cookie with chai,” says Rewati, and adds that cakes and brownies made with millets are slightly dense and crumbly, yet wholesome and delicious.

Similarly, Vatsala Jain of Baked Love by Vatsala, says: “The supply and the quality of supply both are not consistent enough, yet. We had one instance where due to rains, the entire ragi crop got damaged, and we had to remove it from the menu that year. And sometimes the coarseness of the grain varies, making it difficult to bake. Recipes need to be amended, which is mostly successful, but not easy. It sets you back, when it takes weeks to amend a recipe that has worked fine for an entire year.”

She has clients who get their ragi chocolate cake fix at least once a week, if not more. But those who just want to sample it, don’t usually find it easy to adjust to the different texture that comes with baking these grains.

While Vatsala does sugar-free ragi biscuits and fancy outings like ragi chocolate cakes and amaranth strawberry cake to make it palatable for adults, two mothers, Shauravi Malik and Meghana Narayan, took it upon themselves to change how children eat for the better with super-grains like millets, and launched Slurrp Farm.

“Slurrp Farm products are well-received by parents, and the most popular ancient grain on our menu would have to be ragi — a wonder grain for young children and strong bones. We would like to look back on a legacy of making it “cool” again,” says Shauravi Malik.

Following a similar approach, chef Deepak Rana has developed the menu at Roseate by Ganges, Rishikesh. “Since I am from Uttarakhand, I have been eating these grains since childhood, and these help maintain blood sugar levels and bowel movements, and decrease triglyceride levels. Pseudo cereals like ragi, barnyard and red rice are grown locally, and are available within a radius of 100kms.

Plus, we have our local farmers who we wanted to support,” he says.

Chef Rana and his team went to the local farmers to check what all they grow, and how they grow. Next, they thought they could fuse the local flavours with international ones and developed a menu that has everything from Ragi Phulka (puffed Indian flatbread) to Millet Risotto and Quinoa Upma. “The Millet Risotto, where we have replaced the arborio rice with barnyard millet, is one of the most popular items on the menu,” says chef Rana.

At Delhi’s Taj Palace, executive chef Rajesh Wadhwa has packed the menu for the wellness-focused Innergise stay experiences with fresh and homegrown ingredients loaded with antioxidants and immunity-boosting superfoods.

“Instead of traditional starch, we have incorporated ancient grains such as amaranth, barnyard millet, or jhangora — one of the oldest superfoods known to mankind, and quite popularly used in Uttarakhand, and finger millet or ragi, among many others,” he explains.

The most popular ancient grain dishes on the menu are Ragi Uttapam, Jhangora Curd Rice, and Amaranth Aur Til Ke Pinni. Most ancient grains can be used as the primary starch element in the diet.

“So breads, chapatis, cereals et al can be easily prepared using these. They can also be used in breakfast dishes such as porridges, cereal bowls or even as puddings for desserts,” says chef Wadhwa.