In my previous blog, I pondered over Do We Eat to Live or Live to Eat? and came to a conclusion that we should try and be in the middle, where we eat healthy and soulfully. Continuing the food theme, I decided to explore food habits and how they have evolved over the ages.
Growing up, my diet was pretty much that of any South Indian kid — idly, dosa, sambar, aviyal and such — with North Indian dishes and some Indo-Chinese thrown into the mix. My mother is an amazing cook and I remember her making so many delicacies for us to savor. Eating out was a rarity in those days and was kept for special occasions, unlike today, when we eat out just because we don’t feel like cooking.
It was only after my husband and I moved to the US that we started eating out a lot (read as A LOT) especially during the first few years. Brightly lit fast food chains and restaurants would beckon to us every time we drove past them and we would succumb too easily. I’m proud to say that we managed to move past that phase in a few years. Now, we can drive past those lights without blinking an eye. Just like my personal eating habits have evolved over the years, so has that of the others around the world. Many have started realizing the benefits of eating healthy and are opening up their pantries to ancient grains and more plant based diets. Some are even toying with the idea of vegetarianism which may be a trend for the Western world but was and still is the norm for many families, including mine. Since we are on the topic of healthy eating, read Fortify Your Immune System for a glimpse into the famous Karkidaka Kanji, a nourishing dish made in the South Indian state of Kerala.
Until a few years ago, I had been completely ignorant of the food group called millets. Millets are sometimes called pseudo-grains or ancient grains, even though they are seeds. They are gluten free and offer a healthy alternative for people who cannot eat or want to avoid gluten. The first time I heard the names Thinai, Samai and Kambu was from my mother-in-law (MIL) who loves watching cooking shows on TV. Though I did not pay much attention to it then, I did notice that the shows had special segments featuring millets. Since they were getting so much attention, I figured they probably were worthy of it. Some of the recipes were really creative too. I was still not convinced enough to try some for myself, until recently. I happened to try the finger millet sevai from Shastha foods and loved it. So I decided to try other varieties too. So far, I have experimented with Little Millet (Samai) and Foxtail Millet (Thinai) and Amaranth (flour). I’ve also tasted the Ethiopian Injera bread made of Teff, another millet. When I mentioned these names to my mother, she said that her grandmother used to have samai, on the days she fasted and had to avoid rice.
I read up on millets and realized that they were used in Asia as early as in 5000 BC and that India is one of the largest producers of millets. Some African nations and China are also major producers. Here’s a little insight into this miracle food. Millets were a staple among the Aztecs, Egyptians, and other ancient cultures and I am sure that certain demographics in India still consume millets in large quantities; it is us city-dwellers who have lost touch with these nutritional foods. I remember having finger millet porridge in a village that we visited during a college trip. It was refreshing and filling and I had wondered why we never made it at home. Apart from being widely available, millets have various nutritional properties too: they are rich in protein, fiber, calcium, potassium, iron, and vitamins like niacin, riboflavin and more. Most importantly, especially in today’s world where many people are gluten intolerant, these millets are gluten free and can be easily incorporated into our everyday cooking. I can vouch for that based on the few I have tried — they were easy to cook and very adaptable to recipes I typically cook with rice or semolina.
Like fashion statements make a come back every few decades or so, millets have returned to the limelight. I am not one to follow fashion trends, but this one I am willing to try. Are you ready to follow the trend and try cooking with ancient grains? Feel free to share any special recipes that you have tried.