FF Life: The golden seed

S Sivakumar, group head of ITC’s agri and IT businesses, and Chef Sanjeev Kapoor offer us insights on how to get started with millets and a starter kit of easy recipes

Founding Fuel

Millets, often called nutri-cereals, are among the oldest foods known to humans. They are resilient crops that grow in rain-fed areas, don’t require much fertiliser or the kind of care most other crops do and are packed with most of the nutrients required for normal functioning of the human body according to the ICAR-Indian Institute of Millets Research.

They lost ground (literally) to wheat and rice after the Green Revolution, but now things have come full circle as the world becomes cognizant of not only the need for food security, but also nutritional security to fight hidden hunger (there’s food, but it's not necessarily giving people the right nutrition.)

Millets are smart foods — nearly organic (since they grow in hardy/arid environments and don’t require much fertiliser), and with good nutritional content. They are rich in iron, zinc, folic acid, calcium, magnesium and dietary fibre and can help overcome some of the biggest nutritional and health problems such as hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes.

But how do you start incorporating them in your diet?

The questions that come up: ‘I'm told this millet is good at something, some other millets are good at another thing, and a third one is good at something else. How do I choose what to consume? And once I decide on what I want to consume, I don't know how to cook it. It seems to be complex stuff. And after it is cooked, I don't know if it is going to taste like my normal food or if I can digest it well.’

We asked S Sivakumar, the Group Head of Agri and IT businesses at ITC, who made a switch back to millets some four years ago, to demystify millets for us. And we asked Chef Sanjeev Kapoor for his insights and a starter kit of easy recipes—from snacks, to main meals and desserts.

What you need to know about millets and reverse ageing

By S Sivakumar (Group Head – Agri & IT Businesses, ITC)

I grew up in the rain-fed area of Andhra Pradesh, near Kurnool in the Rayalaseema region, in an industrial township. The villages around the township grew nothing but millets—bajra, ragi, sorghum. When I was in college, in many rural homes in that region, I noticed that people ate millets at home, and served rice only when guests came over.

When I go back to that area now, what I see is primarily rice—that shift happened with some amount of irrigation coming in and obviously, change in dietary habits. It's partly eating habits, partly the convenience, partly the larger narrative that takes place around the subject. Millets essentially ended up as poor people’s food.

Now we are coming full circle.

Why I switched back to millets

On my nutritionist’s advice, I started including millets in my diet in late 2019, and they have become a staple now.

I was overweight. Over the years, my excuse was that I am busy now, I’ll deal with the weight gain and health in due course. But at some stage, age catches up, and then suddenly it becomes urgent to manage weight and health better.

Four years later, I can say that I have reversed ageing. If you want wellness, fitness and general health from food and natural ingredients, as opposed to medicines and pharmaceuticals, I can tell you that millets are it. They can help control lifestyle diseases like hypertension and diabetes.

The consumer trend of focus on health and wellness got accentuated during Covid. There was awareness about the importance of zinc, magnesium, and the core micronutrients—and that instead of supplements, these are available through food.

Since I am from the field of agriculture, I also know that millets are great from the perspective of natural resource consumption and can absorb weather shocks much better. So, there are three factors driving the renewed interest in millets—production with fewer resources, resilience to climate change, and wellness through food, not only at a micro level of individual health but also at a macro level of food and nutrition security.

Is there an intelligent way to make the switch to millets?

You need not say ‘I'll stop eating rice and wheat and completely switch to millets’. After all, one is used to the taste of wheat and rice, and one knows how to cook them, what dishes to prepare, etc, as they are an integral part of the current lifestyle.

That’s why there’s a perceived hesitancy—it is true that you can't roll a roti with millet flour as easily as you can with wheat flour.

But there are ways around that. You can mix millet flour with wheat (you’ll need to experiment with the proportions to arrive at an optimal taste and ease of making for you.) And there are other kinds of fairly simple recipes you can experiment with that use the whole grain. Like with any recipe, spices mask or enhance the taste. (Editor’s Note: See the starter kit of recipes from Chef Sanjeev Kapoor)

I’d like to emphasise that millets are not alien or exotic foods. They were very much a part of India’s traditional cuisine—it’s just that in recent decades, a generation or two have skipped millets.  

Are millets hard to digest?

Soaking, sprouting or fermenting helps harness the goodness of millets naturally. We anyway do similar processes for many of the foods we are familiar with (soaking beans, sprouting mung and other whole pulses, setting yoghurt, fermenting idli batter, etc). So there is no new negative drill here.

Millets do contain anti-nutrients (phytic acid, oxalic acid, etc) that inhibit the absorption of nutrients. Soaking, sprouting, or fermenting are processes that reduce the anti-nutrient activity. Soaking grains or seeds awakens the dormant grain, releasing the optimal level of enzymes that convert the nutrients, including the complex carbohydrate, into forms that the body can easily absorb. And in India we use many fermented foods—essentially, you're ingesting good bacteria that will fight the bad bacteria, which in turn helps in digestion and gut health.

So which millets should one buy and how to store them

With their English names, Hindi names and local names, indeed the whole millet world looks like a big maze.

Obviously, each one is better at something. One has more iron, the other calcium, or another one magnesium. Some are better for diabetics, something else is better as a weaning food or for the elderly, and so on. (Editor’s Note: Refer the ready reckoner on the common millets available in India and what is especially suited for whom)

But, as a general person looking at millets, you can pick and eat any millet—whatever is locally available—because every millet is a powerhouse of nutrients. They are gluten free, high in protein, have low glycaemic index, and are high in dietary fibre. So, don’t let the overload of information confuse you. There is not much risk in relying on just one or two sources of information.

On storage, wheat flour will keep for a couple of months so long as it is properly stored. That’s not the case with millet flours, especially bajra flour—they get rancid and off-taste rather quickly because of the higher fat content and the enzyme lipase.

Fortunately, where I live, and I am sure elsewhere too, it is possible to get millets milled freshly every week. You buy and store whole grain bajra (or other millets) in clean, airtight jars—those have a longer shelf life. Once it is milled into flour, use it within 10 - 15 days. If your requirement is small, you can even grind the soaked and dried grains into flour in a coffee grinder. There are, of course, flours, like ITC’s Aashirvaad millet flours, if you prefer convenience (more about it later).

Of course, there are many ways to extend shelf life both conventionally as well as through newer methods. But in all those methods you are either inactivating the lipase, or you are separating out the fat, the endosperm. However, lipase is a good enzyme that helps in breaking down the starch into food. Fundamentally, one of the reasons why millets are good, is that lipase helps make the micronutrients available to the body. So, removing it to extend shelf life nullifies the very reason why you want to eat millets.

So, for easy digestibility and longer shelf life, buy the whole grain—and then soak, sprout, ferment or mill into a flour as you need. 

(Designed by NS Ramnath)

Is there such a thing as “too much millets”?

There is an optimality to everything. Even fermentation, which is generally healthy, if done to excess can lead to increased sugar and calorie intake, and can lead to bloating and stomach gas.

Millets are nutri-cereals, yes, but they are not some magical superfood. Balanced diet is key, and millets are just a part of it. I’d even suggest eating a variety of millets. And like with any other food, eat what’s available in the season. In fact, in my personal diet plan advised by the nutritionist, carbohydrates (mostly millets) are just 25% of my plate. Fifty percent is a variety of vegetables and 25% is protein. And there’s a place for fruits and nuts as healthy snacks between meals.

Wheat and rice have benefits too, and can be part of a varied diet. The more aware consumer will figure out what is optimal and not pull in just one direction.

Lastly, don’t forget that adequate sleep, hydration (I drink a glass of water every 90 minutes or so) and movement are part of healthy living. Movement increases circulation, activating nutrient absorption and toxins release. And it need not be strenuous—just reasonable levels of activity that I weave in through 10-minute walks before meals and a longer one 2 hours after an early dinner.

What's coming on supermarket shelves?

Product innovation is on. Many brands have millet-based packaged snacks already available. ITC too is infusing millets into many products besides 100% millet products—some are already available in the stores (like Sunfeast Farmlite Millets Cookies, Bingo Tedhe Medhe, Yippee Noodles), and many others are in the pipeline.

One of our popular products is Aashirvaad multi millets mix. It is a product crafted out of the consumer insight to make it easier to include millets in the regular cooking that one is used to. Whatever you are making — idli or dosa batter, or dough for roti — you can mix in the recommended proportion, or in the proportion that suits your taste. For the converted, there are Aashirvaad ragi flour and gluten free flour.

Besides flours and snacks, you’ll find millets added to vermicelli at one end of the spectrum and chocolates too at the other end. Consumer research with different prototypes is an ongoing process to see at what proportion is it a meaningful infusion from a wellness perspective and where people are also happy with the taste. Some will be national products and some others will be regional, because of taste familiarity. Besides ITC’s products I have specifically referred to, several other companies are also rolling out millets-based products.

For every occasion—whether centre of plate or snacks—and every consumer profile, there is an opportunity in the millet world. ITC Hotels have millets-based menus. Marriott has taken it elsewhere into the world in association with ITC Hotels. While the popular millet-based recipes at the hotels range from risotto to khichdi and kebabs to khao suey, riding on the new trend of foodie consumers looking for authentic ingredients rendered with a twist, some startups are experimenting with pizza crusts, puddings, smoothies, energy balls, balanced-diet bowls and so on.

All in all, it looks like a yummy and healthy future for consumers. [Editor’s note: On its part, the government is also encouraging innovation in the space through start-up challenges. And the GST Council in its meeting today (October 7), recommended nil rate for food preparation of millet flour in powder form and containing at least 70% millets by weight when sold in loose form, and 5% if sold in pre-packaged and labelled form.]

#MilletKhazana: A humble treasure 

By Sanjeev Kapoor, master chef, TV show host, and author of bestselling cookbooks

Millets are super versatile and can be easily incorporated to make your diet better.

They’re not just a healthy alternative, but also an environmentally sustainable option. A few years ago, however, I was distressed to see that millets were being described as chaara or fodder on the internet. So I had a clear vision to act on this. 

This year, I am delighted that our humble millets are back in the limelight—2023 was declared as the International Year of Millets (IYOM '23). From being a staple to suddenly disappearing and now again being noticed for having enormous potential, our good ol’ millets have come a long way, but this time around they are here to stay! With about 6,000 varieties of millets throughout the world, each one of them has its own unique taste, texture and uses. 

With the Millet Movement in India, my vision of bringing millets back to the centre stage gained momentum and I started a campaign #MilletKhazana. It is a platform where I share millet recipes, tips and tricks, and other interesting information to re-introduce millets to my audience. 

So bid adieu to the myth that millets are hard to digest or difficult to incorporate, and convert your typical recipes into amazing ones with some ‘Millet Magic’.

Millet Kheer 

Begin your millet journey with my personal favourite sweet treat — Millet Kheer. Besides being absolutely easy to make, this delicious creamy kheer made with the goodness of millets is an excellent way to win hearts. 

Buddha Bowl

This unique recipe consists of a completely balanced meal served together in a beautiful way in a bowl. It is a fusion of millets with taste, textures and colours, making it all more attractive.

Kodo Pea Risotto 

We’ve all had a heartwarming risotto to comfort our soul on a rough day. So I thought why not give it a healthy twist and make some Kodo Pea Risotto? The same creamy comfort but with added nourishment makes this risotto a perfect example of how millets can be easily used in your diet. 

Foxtail Upma 

It is time to turn your basic Semolina upma into a delightful Foxtail upma. Like I said, substituting is easy, so waste no time, and whip up a healthy breakfast in minutes. Also, be ready to be blown away by the superb taste.

Ragi Oats Dhokla 

Snacking is incomplete without a lovely spongy dhokla. I suggest next time try this simply amazing ragi oats dhokla, pack it in your tiffin to work and be amazed by the compliments that you’ll get. 

Paunk Salad

Just like any other fruit or vegetable, some millets too are best relished in some particular seasons, like Bajra typically in winter, or Koozh (porridge) in Tamil Nadu during summer to cool down the body. Similarly, when fresh tender sorghum is in season, you must indulge in this amazing Paunk salad because it is not only tasty but also very healthy! The blast of textures makes it a perfect party starter at the hurda party, besides also aiding in having seasonal produce.

Multi Millet Oats Date Cake

This one’s a unique recipe which I curated specially for all those who have a sweet tooth! Indulge in this yummy multi-millet oats date cake guilt-free as it is made with oats and multiple millets for added health benefits. 

Truly, millets are so versatile that you can make such a variety of recipes ranging from snacking options and main dishes to even desserts. No wonder, this year even at the recent G20 summit, millets were prominently featured on the menu for the dignitaries. 

Dig deeper

(Story package curated by Sveta Basraon)

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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