Grains of truth: Why India is mad over millets again

ByShirin Mehrotra
Feb 03, 2023 11:26 PM IST

Millets are better for you and for the Earth. Five chefs help you turn the ancient food into modern meals

How’s this for a superhero origin story? Back in the 1990s, HD Deve Gowda, India’s Prime Minister at the time, let it be known that ragi mudde - ragi balls dunked sambar - was his favourite dish. Restaurants across the country added the Karnataka staple to their menus. You could actually order Prime Minister’s Delight. It was probably ragi’s first brush with fame.

A mixed millet uttapam is a quick and easy way to start the day on a lighter, more sustainable note. (RAJ K RAJ)
A mixed millet uttapam is a quick and easy way to start the day on a lighter, more sustainable note. (RAJ K RAJ)

Cut to today. Ragi (finger millet), along withsorghum (jowar), pearl millet (bajra), barnyard millet (sanwa) and other grains in the millets family, are on Michelin-starred menus. Chefs can’t wait to talk about their experiments with it. Nutritionists are relieved that people are asking about them. They’re in crunchy snacks, desserts, fancy breakfast buffets. The United Nations General Assembly even announced 2023 as the year of millets.

All for small-seeded grasses, cereals really, that Indians have consumed for centuries while fasting and feasting. Millets have enjoyed little bursts of fame every few decades. But nothing like this.

It’s a welcome move. Millets are lighter on the stomach, easy to digest, get fluffy like rice when cooked and have a nutty flavour. They go well with meat or vegetable curries, sambar or dal. They do well in one-pot meals and salads. Mix a millet flour into wheat dough and the flavours emerge richer. You don’t even have to wait endlessly for them to cook, like your grandma did. Like rice or pasta, they need a decent amount of water, some salt and a little bit of your attention. And of course, a modern recipe to make the age-old grains come alive. Here goes...

Try them at breakfast

Chef Vanshika Bhatia (RAJ K RAJ)
Chef Vanshika Bhatia (RAJ K RAJ)

“I try to replace regular grains with millets when possible,” says chef Vanshika Bhatia, who worked at Gaggan in Bangkok and is now at Delhi’s OMO Café. Her interest in fermented foods from India’s southern states led her to experiment with millets. “I realised that even dosa and uttapam can be made using millets. I removed the rice, kept the lentil and fermented the batter in the same way. The flavour was mind blowing and kept me full for longer.” she says. Bhatia finds ragi most interesting for its flavour, texture, colour and pearl-like shape. She also uses ragi flour to make sourdough bread and crackers.

Mixed millet uttapam

Mixed millet uttapam by chef Vanshika Bhatia (RAJ K RAJ)
Mixed millet uttapam by chef Vanshika Bhatia (RAJ K RAJ)


50 gms ragi millet

50 gms foxtail millet

25 gms urad dal

3 gms methi seeds


½ tsp red chilli powder

For tempering

1 tsp mustard seeds

10-12 curry leaves, roughly chopped

2 shallots, sliced

50 gms coconut oil


⦁Soak ragi and foxtail millets in a bowl overnight. Soak the urad dal and methi seeds in a separate bowl. Drain both the next morning.

⦁Grind both separately to a coarse texture.

⦁Mix the dal and millets paste together and keep covered at room temperature to ferment for 6-8 hours. 

⦁Add salt and red chilli powder and about half cup water. The batter should be thick but easy to pour. 

⦁Heat ½ tbsp coconut oil in a small tempering pan. Add mustard seeds and let them splutter. Throw in curry leaves and shallots. Fry for 2-3 minutes. Add this tempering to the millets batter.

⦁Heat a pan (ideally a cast iron one) and pour a little oil to grease it.

⦁Pour two spoonfuls of batter and spread it a little like uttapam. Cook for about 5-6 minutes on medium flame. Turn over to cook it on the other side.

⦁Remove from pan and serve with coconut chutney.

Feel the crunch

Chef Gracian De Souza
Chef Gracian De Souza

As a child, chef Gracian De Souza of Goa’s The Village Bistro, recalls how his grandparents would often add millets to the family meal. He’s enjoyed trying out millet recipes over the last five years. “They can be cooked just like rice. Just remember to soak them,” he says. His salad substitutes local millets for the more expensive quinoa or couscous. Add meats and greens to give it your own touch.

Millet salad

Millet salad
Millet salad


½ cup millet (foxtail, pearl or kodo)

½ cup chickpeas, pressure-cooked and seasoned with salt

1 tbsp goji berry (or cranberry), chopped

½ orange, segments

½ cup spring onions, chopped

150 gms grilled beef/mutton/chicken

2 tbsp coriander honey dressing

Coriander honey dressing

1/4 cup vinegar

¼ cup lime juice

½ cup olive oil

3-4 tbsp honey

Salt to taste

Pepper to taste

½ tsp coriander powder

1 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped

Blend all the ingredients well. Fill in squeezy bottles. Keeps for 3 days.


⦁Soak the millet for 5-6 hours. Cook it like rice with double the quantity of water. Season with salt and pepper and add chopped spring onions.

⦁Mix in chickpeas, chopped berries, orange segments, and your protein.

⦁Add the dressing and mix well.

Get a meaty edge

Chef Hussain Shahzad (Satish Bate)
Chef Hussain Shahzad (Satish Bate)

Chef Hussain Shahzad and The Bombay Canteen have been conducting interesting experiments with regional ingredients. “We used to receive a lot of millets from the Araku valley in Andhra Pradesh as a part of the Independence Day dawat we host to support the Naandi Foundation”, says Shahzad. “During the lockdown, we had time to think of new ways to use them.” A millet flour pancake has appeared at Sunday brunch. But the millet haleem riffs on his childhood favourite, haleem and khichda, meat-based dishes which use a mix of grains. This version leaves the meat out, replaces grains with millets, and also uses vegetables to give it the right texture.

Millet haleem

Millet haleem (Satish Bate)
Millet haleem (Satish Bate)

Ingredients for the base

10 gms kodo millet

10 gms proso millet

10 gms foxtail millet

30 gms urad dal

10 gms chana dal

10 gms moong dal

50 gms ghee

11 gms chilli paste

10 gms garlic paste

8 gms ginger paste

50 gms chopped tomato

50 gms fried onion

6 gms spice mix

15 gms rice

60 gms ash gourd

60 gms sweet potato

60 gms bottle gourd

60 gms pumpkin

60 gms potato

15 gms shiitake mushroom (soaked for 30 mins and blended when soft)

A pinch of green cardamon powder

Spice mix

75 gms coriander powder (fine)

15 gms turmeric

10 gms Kashmiri chillies


⦁Soak the grains overnight. Drain the next morning.

⦁Cook the grains and the vegetables in a pressure cooker with water (to cover) and salt. Cook for 3 whistles, on a gentle flame.

⦁Heat ghee in a saucepan, sauté the chilli paste and the ginger garlic paste. Once you see oil on the sides of the pastes, add the tomatoes and sweat them down, season with salt.

⦁Add in the fried onions.

⦁Add the spice mix and leave to cook thoroughly.

⦁In a blender, blitz the cooked grains and vegetable mix to a coarse, porridge- like texture .

⦁Add it to the pot with the tomatoes & fried onions.

⦁Add in the mushroom paste. Cook for 15-20 mins stirring continuously.

⦁Sprinkle cardamon powder, check for salt and turn off the flame.

⦁Serve garnished with mint leaves, ginger julienne, chopped chillies, lime wedges and fried onions.

Reboot an old favourite

Chef Auroni Mookerjee (Samir Jana)
Chef Auroni Mookerjee (Samir Jana)

At the Rishi Valley residential school in Andhra Pradesh, chef Auroni Mookerjee was regularly served ragi malt and other millet-based dishes. Mookerjee’s parents, who run a homestay in Kanha, grow their own food including the local millet kodo, and also serve it to their guests. At the Sienna Store & Café, Kolkata, he serves a millet version of bisi bele bath inspired by Bengali khichuri. “They bring diversity to the dish,” he says, “Millets and sambar powder are interesting combination, given how the spice mix blends with the nutty flavour of the grains.”

Bisi bele bath

Bisi bele bath (Samir Jana)
Bisi bele bath (Samir Jana)


¾ cup arhar dal

¼ tsp turmeric powder

2.5 cups water

1 cup kodo millet

3 cups water

1 tsp pink salt

Bisi Bele Spice Mix

½ cup coriander seeds

¼ cup chana dal

1 tbsp urad dal

12 pcs Byadgi chili (small)

8 pcs Guntur chili (small)

1 tsp cumin seeds

½ tsp whole black pepper

3 pcs green cardamom

1 big cinnamon stick

4 cloves

4 Marathi moggu (kapok buds)

4 tbsp desiccated coconut

2 tsp poppy seeds

1 mace (small)

½ tsp fenugreek seeds


2 tbsp ghee

2 pcs Marathi mogu

1 tsp mustard seeds

3 pcs dry Byadgi chilli

12-15 pcs curry leaves

1 tsp hing

3 tbsp bisi bele spice mix

2 tbsp desiccated coconut

Tamarind pulp to taste

Jaggery to taste

Salt to taste


⦁Rinse dal and pressure cook it for 4 whistles.

⦁Rinse millets and boil until semi tender.

⦁In a stock pot, mix the cooked dal and millet and continue cooking on medium to medium-high heat, add warm water if required.

⦁Bring to a boil, then lower the heat. Simmer until the grains are tender and all the water has been absorbed.

⦁For tempering, add ghee, Marathi mogu, and mustard seeds to a pan. After it crackles add byadgi chilli, curry leaves, hing, bisi bele spice mix and desiccated coconut. Cook until the chillies change colour.

⦁Pour this tempering into the millets. Add salt, jaggery and tamarind pulp. Stir and cover the cooker with its lid for about 5 mins, so that the flavours infuse the dish.

⦁Serve with potato wafers or banana chips/fried or roasted papads. Top with a bit of ghee if you like.

Sweeten the deal

Chef Shriya Shetty (Sanith Poojary)
Chef Shriya Shetty (Sanith Poojary)

Chef Shriya Shetty started cooking with millets seriously when she moved to Mangaluru to open her bakery, Butter Cream Co, and study her ancestral cuisine. She’s researched hyper-regional preparations such as ragi manni, a custard . “I was initially intimidated by millets, now we use them in desserts and savoury items,” says Shetty. “You can use ragi in something as simple as ladoos or something slightly fancier like tart.” Her crumble recipe is a combination of banana halwa and ragi manni, and harks back to her memories of eating rajgira chikki as a child.

Banana Millet Crumble

Banana Millet Crumble (Sanith Poojary)
Banana Millet Crumble (Sanith Poojary)


6 ripe Robusta bananas

30 gms jaggery/brown sugar

100 gms coconut milk

For crumble

50 gms ragi flour

50 gms jowar flour

50 gms cold butter

20 gms chopped walnuts

A pinch of sea salt


Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream

Rajgira chikki/puffed rajgira


⦁For the crumble topping, mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl and rub in the cold butter until it gets a rough crumbly mixture. Rest in freezer for 30-40 minutes.

⦁In a buttered oven-proof pan, smash the bananas and jaggery into a textured mush.

⦁Flatten the mixture using a spatula and fold in the coconut milk.

⦁Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees and bake for 15 minutes.

⦁Take the mixture out of the oven, top it with the frozen crumble and continue baking for another 20 minutes, or until the topping is cooked.

⦁Serve warm with a dollop of freshly whipped cream or ice-cream and topped with bits of rajgira chikki.

From HT Brunch, February 4, 2023

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