From government patronage to chefs’ experimentation to aisle stocking of products made of these ancient grains, and yet the dream of Millet's Quinoa-like-rise to fame feels distant. Are we ‘menu-limited’? A perspective.
By Madhulika Dash
A fact: Millets are great. The small group of eight, major and minor grains, not only are drought friendly and can be grown through the year in a cyclic method, but also are the finest condensed source of nutrients. They ace the game of moderation-eating thanks to the ability to satiate early, making them perfect additions to the wellness menu.
Also a fact: Millets are hard grains, they need time to process and take longer to cook.
Another fact: Millets have a very long shelf life and portability. Most are indigenous.
These are a few reasons that contributed for the fanfare comeback of millets into mainstream food a few years ago in India, but also of India's success at convincing the UN to announce 2023 as the Year Of Millets. On paper, this development seems like a manna from heaven, a sound solution to not just the anaconda-sized hunger issue globally but a plausible, sensible start to planet-friendly sustainable practice.
In fact, in India, the promoting millet initiative went a few steps further – the ancient grain was introduced into the menu of parliaments, there were special units set up to promote the understanding and adaptation of millets, schemes were launched to nudge farmers to go back to the grains that laid the foundation of our great civilisation, and start ups that worked with millets were treated special.
Millets took the forefront when it came to a lot of tribal and agro initiatives with seasoned chefs joining the fray to do their little to give millets, a chosen few of course, the Quinoa-like oomph and push.
Behind the Grain
There were of course a few amazing events that came out of this millet-advocacy including the first Indus Valley Civilisation done by Chef Sabyasachi Gorai in association with the National Museum and of course the Sense & Sensibility Table with Chef Vikas Seth. While the latter was an experiential showcase of how food could play with dormant sensors like those on the face and lips using various millet preparations for a selected group of people (available still on request), it was the Indus Valley pop-up that recreated the Harappan kitchen that seemed to be an eye opener for many.
It was, said Chef Gorai, “a realisation of not just the number of millets we grew back then but the idea of creating wholesome meals using every possible resource available. In fact, the food during Harappa and Indus time was as advanced in its use of tastemakers and flavourants than it is today. We used stock, we used fermented sauces and we used herbs to create just the right kind of aroma and taste in food – and to rehash the previous day’s mash.”
Fascinatingly for Chef Gorai, while most of the research led him to find a modern day cousin of the dishes enjoyed back in the form of kanji, kheer, biryani, meat saag, puri, mudhi ghonto and even the popular mixed vegetable versions of Umbadiyu and Ghanta, there are quite a few grains that were either lost in time or were so rare that he had to literally substitute with something that in character was a closer mimic.
The few that were used for the ten odd days of culinary celebration left not just the culinary anthropologist chef in awe, but was a lesson for many of his peers. Eventually, this trend led us to the path ahead for millet supremacy as a grain in our food system.
The Millet Block
Barring the few like foxtail millet, pearl millet and buckwheat that are still part of our food system thanks to its ritualistic connect, says Chef Gorai, “we do not have the know how, the old recipes or the palate to adapt to it with ease.” It is a takeaway that Chef Seth too felt after the first few Sense & Sensibility Tables and the varied initiatives to put millets back on the menu using popular dishes as the sounding board. But at the end, says Chef Seth, “one does acknowledge that even though we have tried to revive these age-old, wellness grains through popular dishes, thanks to the peculiar taste of some of the millet varieties, it hasn't been a success with most and adapting it to today's taste palate may take a longer.”
One of the best examples of this is the traditional Maharashtrian meal of Pithla Bhakri often referred to as Zunka Bhakri. A rustic combination of sorghum millet based bread and a tangy, spicy gram flour based curry, this peasant meal though once was a popular sustenance, today is a novelty in the mainstream. This is akin to the Rajasthani Rotla and Laal Maas, and in some cases Mandia, a popular millet based drink in Eastern India.
High on Paper, Low On Ground
The reasons for this are manifold: first, the taste. Aside from the niche users, essentially farmers and tribal people, for whom millets are a part of their daily food habits, the rest don't have the taste for it, and the actual know-how of incorporating the many formats into the meal.
Of course, an argument can be made of the many convenient ways that millets have been reformatted for our use – chips, RTC and RTE upmas, poha, biryani, jaggery or honey sweetened cookies, pasta, noodles, dosas, idlis, pancake batters, cakes, muffins and even powdered drink mixes, not to forget the different ways in which chefs present them in their own menu as tacos, crepes, sliders and even composite meal where one of the millet replaces rice, and of course the all favourite fried rice/millet.
So why this distance? The reason again - taste.
Unlike wheat and white rice whose almost neutral flavours promote the taking over of different flavourants, millets come with their own strong mouthfeel – which are more grainy and rustic. A palate play that our current tastebuds are not used to. Thus, one doesn't gravitate to millets as willingly even when it comes with the knowledge of being good for our health.
Add to that, the dense texture and the inclination inches away further. Then comes the looks, which plays a huge role for any food acceptance today. Right from the packaging, which barring a few is often a boring, crowded like a thesis kind of cover, to the final hue of the food which sadly is often a tone of grayish black, is all off putting. Out that along with the long cooking time and the need of rethinking how to taste-make and the eventual result often works to the disadvantage of millets, a grain that back in the day had gained popularity for its versatility.
This broken bridge of what one eats at a restaurant and the cooked result at home has been a key troublemaker when it comes to popularity. Of course, the high price for a grain that for years has been a peasant sustenance is another issue in this mission. In fact, what Mission Millet, a concept that began almost half a decade ago, has ably done is made this once a poor man's power-meal, unaffordable. This, in spite of many farmers, especially urban farmers, adding more acres for growing millets. The market price of millets vis a vis cash crops is another deterrent.
The Reverse Psychology of Taste
The nail in this coffin-spell is also the way millet missions and other participants have gone about promoting the grain. Most millet-advocacy dishes use popular food as their vehicle to fame. Hence, cookies, cakes, dosas, samosas and the work. While as an overview having millet alternatives make perfect marketing sense – history is replete with incidents where this method has effectively ingrained a new food into the civilisation – there is tittynope detail that is missed in this case: there are the more tasteful and comforting options available too. So for every millet cookie, there is an oat cookie, the atta cookie and the original flour-based cookie that score on mouthfeel, looks and taste, and are instantly appeasing.
In some, the original seems to be just as healthy and recommended as the millet version. Like dosa and idli. Made with traditional short grain rice and lentil varieties, they come with history, popularity, taste and almost the same health benefits. And, they are still cheap, filling meal options. Then there are dishes where the alternatives have never worked like samosas, cakes and pancakes.
Owing to the dense nature, most of these products are often heavier on the palate, unless they go the marketed “now with added millet” way and use conventional products to add that softness, flexibility and crunch. This most of the time is the case because even if one is aware of all these issues, while having a dish, the mind and the tastebuds, in sync, expect the same taste profile that one remembers. A slight difference to it often is rejected by our food memory and thus the acceptability reduces.
This rewiring of the food emotion and memory ensures that the consumers deviate towards the original at a faster speed. Result, every time the millet advocacy is at the peak, the original gets a boost in its sale. And the innovation unless enforced to avoid a health condition remains in the realm of “worth a try”, which as chefs would agree has been the case with their special menus thus far.
So what is the alternative? After all, climate change, hunger, health and the need for sustainable options are now a priority given the incidents that have headlined in the past three years. To begin with we need to revive the bank of traditional millet recipes and make it relevant for today's needs. And while doing so find units where they can be an easy fit without being seen as an alternative.
The two spaces are the cereal aisle and the granola. For most adults our taste buds have evolved in the past three decades and would take time to change, so instead the target should be the children and the elderly. For two reasons, while for kids the taste profile develops till the end of their teenage years, and in elderly, traditional dishes can get the food memory to work a greater acceptability.
There is also a need for tutoring people on how to adopt millets right from the basics like which flour makes for good quality bhakri (the thicker ground works better than fine); and ways to shorten the cooking time or how to do a prep cook (much like soaking rice overnight for dosa); popularising fermented products that often make millet light on the taste buds and easy to digest; and finally a food-farm-village festival that allows people to go and relish food made by those who still know how to. And the final bit is snacks: papad, fryums and such that can be paired with drinks to give it a boost.
While this may make millet reach our tables frequently, there is an urgent need also to undo the works of the Green Revolution, which turned the tables on these ancient grains. As only when a product is more affordable will it reach to become a street food – which is perhaps the best way for a wider outreach.