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How the humble jowar, kokum, turmeric became gourmet ingredients

With chefs, both in India and the west, suddenly interested in celebrating Indian ingredients, we’re rediscovering our culinary roots like never before

health-and-fitness Updated: Feb 05, 2016, 15:06 IST
Meenakshi Iyer
Meenakshi Iyer
Hindustan Times
Cypriot mix grain salad at Jeon, Hotel Sea Princess, Juhu.
Cypriot mix grain salad at Jeon, Hotel Sea Princess, Juhu.

From November to March, western India celebrates the arrival of ponkh: green, flavourful pearls — tender jowar for the uninitiated — that make for a healthy winter snack. For Mumbai-based food writer and consultant Saee Koranne-Khandekar, hurda (or ponkh) is also a good source of nutrition for her children. Her Instagram feed compiles recipes that feature jowar (in all its forms), a popular millet variety in Maharashtra and Gujarat. “Popped millet is an easy and traditional Maharashtrian snack enjoyed greatly by my one-year-old twin boys and my 85-year-old grandmother alike,” she says. Add a smattering of curry leaves as seasoning, and it could give your favourite popcorn flavour a run for its money.

Recently, when celebrated chef David Chang (of Momofuku group of restaurants) announced on Instagram that mung bean would be the next big ingredient in the west, his post generated curiosity. But it’s not just the mung bean that’s having its moment in the sun. Grains, millets and spices indigenous to the subcontinent are finding takers, especially among consumers who shop from the health section of the supermarket. Take, for instance, turmeric and kokum, both common Indian ingredients. The latest fad is to add turmeric in smoothie bowls along with berries and oats, whereas kokum has found a fan in Chicago-based start-up Sant that will sell $10 pouches of kokum to be added to infused water. And like all trends that come back to us with sanction from the west, there is a renewed interest in traditional food that our ancestors survived on.

Kokum cheesecake at Novotel Imagica Khopoli.

“Health is a primary reason driving the return of interest in these grains. But we’re also rediscovering the virtues (nutritive and gastronomic) of our culinary legacies and appreciating locally grown foods, thanks to all the talk of food miles and slow food,” says Koranne-Khandekar, whose pantry is stocked with finger millet (ragi) and barnyard millet (vari).

Culinary heritage

Before wheat entered our food chain, traditional millets like jowar, bajra and ragi were commonly consumed. “My ancestors used bajra and rice to make bread,” says chef Glyston Gracias (of Smoke House Deli), who belongs to the East Indian community native to Mumbai. “Back then, they ate gluten-free meals. Who would have thought that it would be considered hip in 2016,” he says of the growing interest in this trend. Gracias is now working on a healthy menu to be launched at all Smoke House Deli outlets next week. On offer will be dishes like seasonal vegetables in a nachani (ragi) tart, millet upma, and jowar fettuccine. “With this menu, we have cut down on all kinds of processed food,” he says. At The Pantry in Kala Ghoda, similar experiments have resulted in a healthy menu that boasts of dishes like meal-in-a-bowl using cottage cheese, broccoli, kale and red rice (see box for recipe) and bulgur (broken wheat) upma. At Lower Parel-based The Bombay Canteen, the newly introduced winter menu features a colourful barley and jowar salad topped with pomegranate and micro greens. “Chefs, both in India and abroad, have started realising that there is an abundance of culinary wealth in the country, both in terms of techniques as well as ingredients. This new movement towards healthy, wholesome grains and pulses is a step in that direction,” says The Bombay Canteen’s executive chef Thomas Zacharias.

For Bangalore-based nutritionist and food blogger Nandita Iyer, bulgur makes for a perfect accompaniment with the south Indian sambar. “I’ve heard from my grandmother, who grew up in Mumbai in the ’30s that, in those days, because of war and famine, rice was a luxury. Broken wheat used to come from Australia, and they would consume it with south Indian curries as a substitute for rice,” she says. Today, inspired by her grandmother’s legacy, Iyer writes blogs on healthy recipes to educate readers about the nutritional value of traditional grains and millets. “To give it a contemporary appeal, I use barley and jowar in salads. And to give a healthy spin to patties, you can replace potatoes with these grains,” says Iyer.

Crops and communities

Millets have a special place in the Garhwali cuisine, says food consultant Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, who married into the community. “The cuisine of Garhwal is populated with grains, pulses and millets. Jhangora (barnyard millet) and mandwa (nachani) are staples. Since we find traditional recipes staid, reinventing them will keep them alive. For instance, I make khichdi using jowar, bajra and meat,” she says. Back in the ’30s and ’40s, millets were perceived as famine food or a poor man’s meal. “If you were affluent, you would eat rice and poori,” adds Munshaw-Ghildiyal.

Gluten free cookies — chocolate chip and orange cranberry — made using ragi flour at Icing on Top in Kemps Corner.

During his travels across the country, Zacharias came across many variations of traditional dishes made using millets. “In Mysore [Karnataka], I had ragi mudde (boiled dough balls) with a curry made from horse gram and greens. In Arunachal Pradesh, the Monpa tribe eats a millet porridge with soybean or cheese,” he says. For the Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu (CKP), a community in Maharashtra, barnyard millet and foxtail millet (kang) are staples. “Both these millets have low GI (Glycaemic Index), and can be used to make rotla or even kheer,” says archeologist and food expert Dr Kurush Dalal.

However, Dalal also points to a worrying aspect: “Most millets that were grown in Maharashtra have faded. I’ve been trying to find harik (kodo millet) in the markets, but haven’t been able to spot it,” he says. According to him, farmers are no longer interested in growing these crops as the government distributes free rice to those below poverty line. “Thus, they no longer feel the need to grow these traditional crops,” he adds.

Since millets can be grown in arid conditions, these require little to no irrigation. “The nutritive properties of these ingredients complement the weather in India. For instance, bajra, as opposed to wheat, is known to withstand severe weather conditions, and can be found in regions like Rajasthan,” says Manav Koul, executive chef at Sofitel in Bandra-Kurla Complex. So, at Tuskers, a popular vegetarian restaurant in Sofitel, guests enjoy a bajri ki khichdi.

The quinoa effect

As food fads go, most find takers for a year or two (kale, for instance). The south American quinoa, however, has enjoyed lasting interest. Since it is sold at a premium in India, it made chefs here look for homegrown substitutes. “The harbinger of the local grain revolution is the quinoa. And 2016, according to me, is the year of grain,” says celebrity chef Ranveer Brar.

Along with grains, pulses too are enjoying newfound fame. The third edition of the Pulses Conclave will be held in Jaipur this month. During the three-day event, the Indian Pulses and Grain Association will announce 2016 as the ‘year of pulses’, following the UN’s declaration. “It is good to see that we have gotten over the ‘firang’ grain fad,” adds Brar. Come March, he will set up TAG Kitchen & Wine Cellar, an art space-cum-restaurant in Lower Parel with an India-inspired menu. “We will experiment with dishes like amaranth risotto, raab sauce (a popular beverage in Rajasthan often made using yoghurt and bajra) and soba noodles made of nachani,” he says.

The onus of bringing the focus back to traditional grains lies on chefs and food enthusiasts. “We need to demystify indigenous millets rather than glorify them,” says Brar. At the same time, retailers need to move grains like ragi, amaranth, jowar and bajra out of the niche health section and put them alongside essentials like wheat and rice. At the end of the day, the idea isn’t to make good old native ingredients exotic, and limit their usage to restaurant menus. This is the homecoming of food trends. And we need to adopt it, not as a fad, but as a way of life.

The soon-to-be launched healthy menu at all Smoke House Deli outlets in the city will feature dishes like jowar fettuccine. (Photo: Prashant Waydande)

Fit eats: Try these nutritious dishes at popular city eateries

- Jowar gnocchi and mushroom fricassee, cacao nib and soya milk cheese cake with nachani crust

At: Smoke House Deli outlets, starting next week

-Sattu ka sherbat and mandve ki roti aur gahet ki daal

At: 29 – Twenty Nine, ground floor, Mohammedbhay Mansion, Kemps Corner

Call: 3312 6003

-Cypriot mix grain salad (combines lentils, chia seeds and flax seeds)

Where: Jeon, Hotel Sea Princess, Juhu Tara Road, Juhu

Call: 2646 9500

-Barley and jowar salad topped with pomegranates and micro grees

Where: The Bombay Canteen, Kamala Mills, Lower Parel

Call: 4966 6666

-Gluten free cookies — chocolate chip and orange cranberry — made using ragi flour

Where: Icing on Top, Kemps Corner

Call: 98670 13315

Meal-in-a-bowl salad

Serves: One

Preparation time: 20 minutes


- Red rice: 150g

- Pan-seared kale leaves, broccoli and lima beans: 90g

- Sauerkraut: 60g

- Butter sauteed mushroom: 60g

- Pan-seared cottage cheese: 120g

- Nasik oranges: 40g

- Salted caramel cauliflower remulade: 1 tsp

- Cauliflower: 60g

- Salted butter: 20g

- White vinegar: 10ml

- Brown sugar: 5g


* Dice cauliflower and blanch in water with white vinegar.

* Sauté the cauliflower along with a pinch of brown sugar for caramelisation.

* Grind the mix for puree of the remoulade.

* Soak red rice for half hour. While pan is hot, add chopped bay leaf, onion and garlic, Add the soaked rice and cook for 12 to 15 minutes. Keep aside.

* In a hot pan, add olive oil, chopped onions and garlic and cook until light brown. Add in the lima beans, kale, and broccoli. Sauté until tender, add salt and pepper to taste.

* Add all the finished ingredients in the bowl alongside each other.

* Add oranges sliced top to bottom to get a spiral shape and salted caramel cauliflower butter remoulade to serve.

— Recipe from The Pantry, Kala Ghoda

Know your grains

Finger millet (Ragi, nachani)

Grown in parts of Asia and Africa, this variety is used in regional delicacies like ragi roti and ragi idli in Tamil Nadu, and ragi mudda in Karnataka. It can be malted and consumed with milk. Finger millet is a good source of calcium.

Sorghum (Jowar)

Often consumed as flatbreads and porridge, the grain is popular in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. It contains protein and carbohydrates.

Barley and jowar salad at The Bombay Canteen in Lower Parel. (Photo: Sanjay Ramchandran)

Pearl millet (Bajra)

It is widely grown in India and has been an important part of traditional meals; bajra khichdi is popular in Rajasthan, while bajra is consumed in the form of bhakri in Maharashtra. Pearl millet is a great source of fibre and starch.

Foxtail millet (kang, kangni)

Popular in south India, foxtail millet has been around since 3rd century BC. This variety is a good source of protein and fibre.

Proso millet (Chena)

Closely related to pearl millet. Like all other millets, proso is gluten-free, so it’s a good substitute for wheat flour.

Barnyard millet (Samwat, Vari)

This millet is consumed during the Navratri fast. It also makes for an excellent ingredient in porridge. Barnyard millet has the lowest carbohydrate content among all varieties of millets.

Kodo millet (Varagu)

A great substitute for rice and wheat as it can be turned into flour and used to make flatbreads. In India, kodo millet is ground into flour to make pudding and, in Africa, it is cooked like rice. Broken wheat (Daliya). Since it is not refined, the grain is considered highly nutritious. It is a good source of iron, magnesium and phosphorus.

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