Every summer break when I visited my grandparent’s village, there would be one breakfast dish made with it every week. It could be ragi idlis (steamed cakes), dosas (savory crepes), uthappams (pancakes), sevai (noodles) or chapattis (Indian breads).
My grandfather has friends who are farmers and during every meal he would share insights about the harvest, growing season, principles of crop rotation and how to make compost. Some information went over my head and some stayed etched in my heart forever.
Finger millet has a very short growing time. It can grow into a mature plant within 70-80 days or even less. Finger millet is high in starch and considered a substitute for wheat, maybe even better than wheat because its proteins are more easily digested. “It has the third highest iron content of any grain, after amaranth and quinoa,” states Matt Styslinger from Nourishing the Planet project. Finger millets are highly nutritious, gluten free and easy to digest.
My grandfather would say that rice and wheat need more water and improved soil fertility for better yield while millet grows well in dry, arid lands. It seems to me that this presents a wonderful opportunity for farmers in the drier parts of the world.
We should all eat more whole grains like millet, quinoa, and barley to encourage and support our local indigenous farmers. In fact if we alter the natural crop patterns, our natural reserves will dry up fast and Mother Nature will act against us. So let’s respect the bio-diversity in nature and eat foods based on the location and weather patterns.
Finger millet grain is resistant to insects and rot and can be kept for a while. It is also used for brewing alcohol beverages and as animal feed. In south India it is often a basic ingredient in porridge and is considered a poor man’s staple.
It originated in east Africa and came to India around 1000 B.C.E. There are some old Sangam poems around 300 B.C.E to 300 C.E. describe how people of the mountainous region cooked their freshly harvested millet. “Pour in sweet foaming milk from a wild cow into a pot that smells of boiled venison, its broad sides white with fat. Set it on a wood burning stove that uses sandalwood for firewood. When it begins to boil stir in freshly harvested millet and let it cook. When it is cooked, serve it on wide plantain leaves set outside where wild jasmine and nightshade flowers grow.”
I re-created my long lost relationship with millet during my gestational diabetes period. Finger millet breaks down to sugar very slowly and doesn’t spike your blood sugar drastically. It slowly works in your body and hence it’s a perfect ingredient for those who are diabetic or pre-diabetic. They are readily available in Indian grocery stores.
I feed my son finger millet porridge or ragi kanji, a dish made with flour of the sprouted grain for breakfast every other day. It should be well cooked before feeding it to kids.
One of the easiest dishes to make with finger millet is cutlets. All it requires is to mix the finger millet flour with mashed sweet potatoes, regular potatoes or peas and a few Indian spices. To add a more healthy twist, throw in some greens like fenugreek leaves or spinach.
For a bigger challenge, try the Ragi Sevai (Finger millet noodles)—recipe below, which requires the idly cooker and the noodle press. Enjoy!
Vijitha Shyam is a clinical research professional by day and a food blogger, recipe developer and aspiring writer by night. She authors the blog “Spices and Aroma,” a place to find recipes for authentic Indian dishes that fit the South Beach Diet and Gestational Diabetes Menu.
Finger Millet Cutlets
(makes 10 cutlets)
1 cup finger millet/ragi flour
1 medium sized sweet potatoes, boiled and mashed
¼ cup fenugreek leaves, finely chopped
(optional)You can also use drumstick/ moringa leaves
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp chili powder
1 tbsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp salt
½ cup cilantro, finely chopped
1 tbsp water (if needed only)
¼ cup olive oil for cooking
In a clean bowl add finger millet flour, mashed sweet potatoes, fenugreek leaves, spices and cilantro.
Mix them well by hand. The water from the cooked sweet potatoes is enough to knead them into a dough. If it’s still dry, try sprinkling a little water and keep doing so till it has the right consistency of dough. Roll them into balls (of equal size).
Heat a large frying pan on medium-low flame, drizzle 1 tbsp oil along the edges in such a way that the surface of the frying pan is covered with streaks of oil.
Take each ball and press them between your palms about 1 cm in radius.
Place them on the sizzling hot pan leaving enough space between them. Cook for 8-10 minutes on each side.
Remove and place on a plate with a paper towel to drain the excess oil. Serve hot with any sweet-spicy chutney like peach or mango.
Finger Millet Noodles
For the noodles:
2 cups finger millet
1 tsp salt
2 cups hot water
For the base mixture:
1 large onion, chopped
2 green chilies, slit
1 teaspoon ginger, minced
10-12 curry leaves
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp urad dal/black gram dal
1 tbsp olive oil
Idli plates, pressure cooker or
1. Mix finger millet flour with salt and sprinkle boiling water little-by-little to form soft dough.
Mix with a spoon and then when the dough has cooled, use your hands to massage the crumbled flour into smooth dough. Cover it with a damp cloth and let it rest for a while.
Brush the inside of the noodle/sevai press with oil so the dough comes out clean instead of sticking to the press.
Start by using ¼ cup of the dough and place it inside the press and cover. Use the press as per manufacturer’s instructions.
2. Grease the idli plates with cooking spray or oil. Transfer the noodles to the greased idli plates. Steam-cook them for 12-15 minutes. Once the steam has settled, open and transfer to a fresh bowl. Once cooled, remove them and crumble it into smaller pieces using your hand. Set aside.
3. In a large saucepan, heat oil. Once the oil ripples, add the mustard seeds and let it pop.
Throw in the urad dal and curry leaves. Sauté for 30 seconds. Then mix in the onions and ginger and cook for 8 minutes until the onions soften. Add the cooked noodles to this mixture, combine well and serve with any chutney of your choice.