Friday, February 10, 2012

Not Run Off The Mill Yet

2012 is the year of the millet. This is not according to the chinese calendar but as per  new year tips from nutritionists and dieticians  to clients, patients and customers and newspaper readers  who form part of the one percent  and are on the look out  for suggestions that will qualitatively improve their lives. Millets are cereal like foods, and are no longer as well known as the two staples, wheat and rice that the world has veered towards over the previous century. In fact in the years that we grew up, we thought of ourselves as a rather evolved family as far as food was concerned.  Our parents moved to New Delhi from The South of India and rice  and its variations was our morning  and noon staple. In the evenings  we nodded at North Indian  cuisine by consuming chappatis and paranthas, occasionally even venturing in the direction of makki  and missi rotis.  Poories,( enunciated as boories in South India) were occasional fare, viewed with suspicion and consumed with  joy unpunctuated  by  gloom since  the calorific value of the oil sploshed in our food was yet to  be tabulated and white polished rice and white bread  were regular visitors on the kitchen shelf.

 Our favourite day of the week was  saturday afternoon, when we  returned from our not so public school,( government aided, and six day week) The Delhi Tamil Association.  Dad was home from work( from  a corporate job that  allowed its employees two saturdays off  and two  half day saturdays) and usually pottering about, not in the absent minded way of  story book fathers, but busying himself with the preparation of  dosas. He boiled potatoes and  minced onions which were then cooked together  for the masala and  ladled out the dosa batter on large flat  iron tavas that he had  got customized for the purpose. Endless saturdays we ate  large, fragrant ghee roasted, crisp  and thin dosas, which dad rolled out and served with aplomb. When we had visitors, this could be office colleagues or relatives,  dad would roll out dosas, while mom chipped in as  chef's assistant,  getting the batter, chutney and sambaar ready each time.   Those saturdays  have long gone by but my siblings and I  learnt to love food and enjoy  preparing  it since within our household there were no gender specific kitchen roles.

Dad  turned all of eighty a few months ago and can still make a "mean masala dosa' and  delicious  difficult to make rava dosas.. In fact both  my children insist that "Thatha's masal dosa" and "Paati's molahapodi"  taste much better than what  I dish out and always hope to get a raise out of me. Of late, coping with my son's  oil-free expectations , which began with paranthas and  toast and have now extended  to the hapless dosa, I have incorporated dad's not so recent innovation with the dosa batter.  To a quantity of approximately 700 ml of dosa batter, (which can make 10 large dosas) ,  I add one tablespoon of gingelly oil and mix thoroughly. This batter when ladled on to a hot greased skillet requires no further addition of oil.  Discounting the invisible oil already mixed into the batter, what we get  are oil free dosas. I make dosas with ragi and bajra and barley, (substituting rice flour with millet) and the oil trick works fine with all of these as well. Yet I struggle with  the cultural racism that is so deeply ingrained  in our food habits. White rice is prettier and more shapely than brown rice. Dosas made with white rice  are apparently better looking. Iddlis with white rice are more attractive to the eye. Bhaturas with maida are lighter of  complexion  than those made with Aata. Cakes with maida are softer than cakes made with aata.. Meanwhile ragi dosas  that are the colour of oil stained pink sandstone and bajra dosas that turn  mud green   are termed  coarse and unattractive.  And so the litany continues...... Eventually, hunger and the flavour of the food renders all protest irrelevant.The supposedly coarse millet which is sold at and bought  from special  niche stores is  a lot  more expensive  than white rice and white bread,  and also takes longer to cook, which is possibly another reason for its low acceptance in urban households, all of which live from time crunch to time crunch.

   I belong officially to a generation  that struggles with  the absence of knowledge on how to use millets in everyday cooking and despairs at  getting  the young to eat up their millets. I wonder whether this  nutrient dense food  continues to be accessible at all to people who fall outside the privileged one percent  Hopefully, close to the lands where they grow, in homes where there is enough to eat, millets are cooked in a variety of ways . Thenai and keyveragu form part of porridges, both sweet and savoury in Tamil Nadu and  Andhra Pradesh. I have eaten delicious bajre ki roti with kachre ki chutney at Dundlod in Rajasthan. At LMB in Jaipur one gets mouthwatering  bajre churma roasted in ghee and flavored with nuts and cardamom. At Lingsur In Northern Karnataka we feasted on  bajra and jaun rotis and ate some delicious  bajra holiges, stuffed with peanut and jaggery paste and this was local fare  at very affordable rates. In New Delhi  roasted amaranth ladoos have been stocked at the  local grocers all through the cold season, well before  niche stores began supplying amaranth at extraordinary prices. Makke ki roti with saag or gur is another well loved seasonal food.  So are kuttu dipped potato pakoras and the jhankar or bhagar kheer and chawal  made during  the vrats around the navratras in North India.  Incidentally, India is one of the larger producers of millets the world over. May the tribe of  millet consumers  in our country increase yearly!