In Kerala, India, versatile and nourishing finger millet features prominently in Hindu celebrations of the life of a newborn. These rituals begin with Irupathettu, on the 28th day after the birth of the baby.
The child is given its name, its first meal of sweet porridge, its first piece of jewelry, and even eye makeup. After adorning the baby with traditional jewelry pieces (a chain for the midriff, bangles and anklets) the baby is first fed a small spoonful of a freshly prepared herbal concoction called vayambu, which is believed to stimulate good digestion. Then the baby is given a sweet porridge of finger millet (called kora or ragi in India) cooked in milk with a touch of sugar.
Finger millet, Eleusine coracana, also known as African millet, is a staple grain in many villages across South India. It originated in east Africa and traveled through the Indian Ocean trade routes to India around 1000 B.C.
Purnanuru, the ancient Sangam poems of South India dating to 100 BC, describe how people of the mountainous region cooked their freshly harvested millet. “Pour in sweet foaming milk from a wild cow into a pot that smells of boiled venison, its broad sides white with fat. Set it on a wood burning stove that uses sandalwood for firewood. When it begins to boil stir in freshly harvested millet and let it cook. When it is cooked, serve it on wide plantain leaves set outside where wild jasmine and nightshade flowers grow.”
Loaded with nutrients
Finger millet gets its name from the head of the plant, which resembles a splayed hand. It is an ideal crop for dry lands because its seeds are able to remain dormant for weeks. Once the rains come, the grains sprout to life, and the crop can be harvested in just 45 days. It is resistant to rot and insects and keeps well in storage. Finger millet crops are often grown with legumes like peanuts, cowpeas and pigeon peas.
Finger millet is high in starch, low in fat, rich in fiber, non-glutinous and easy to digest. With a mild nutty flavor, finger millet is a grain rich in calcium, protein and other nutrients. It has the third-highest iron content of any grain, after quinoa and amaranth.
It is an ideal grain for people with diabetes because of its low glycemic index. It also contains amino acids lecithin and methionine, which help in bringing down cholesterol level. In the past few years, health concerns about diabetes and high cholesterol have made people in India turn to more traditional and less processed cereals such as finger millet and other millets like jowar and bajra.
When cooking ground millet powder for homemade baby cereal, use about ¼ cup of powder for every 1-2 cups of water and milk combined. You might use more or less as you see fit. Add a touch of sugar and whisk continuously as you are cooking to avoid clumping.
Finger millet a perfect curry accompaniment
Besides its use as a baby food, finger millet is also used in making several south Indian savory breakfast dishes as well as sweets. In the South Indian states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, it is cooked as ragi mudde and ragi sankati by cooking the flour with water until it reaches dough-like consistency. It is then rolled into balls of desired size and served along with a spicy curry.
Ragi dosa is another popular dish. It is also rolled into flat breads, but it does not work well alone in yeast-based breads because it is gluten-free. It is not a commonly used in the United States, though it is beginning to gain in popularity because of its gluten-free nature.
Ragi puttu, steamed millet flour mixed with fresh coconut and salt, is a version of the popular Kerala breakfast dish rice puttu. Traditionally, puttu is steamed in a log-shaped steamer. This method gives the dish its cylindrical shape. In old times, puttu was steamed in bamboo logs, which gave it an earthy aroma.
Puttu can also be prepared by steaming the flour-and-coconut mixture in a steamer basket. The flaky puttu is traditionally served with kadala curry, a spicy curry of brown chick peas simmered in a sauce of fresh roasted coriander and red chilies, seasoned with curry leaves and cilantro and/or bananas and fried pappadum.
Puttu (Steamed Finger Millet Flour and Fresh Coconut)
2 cups finger millet flour
1 cup freshly grated coconut
Salt to taste
½ cup water
1 tablespoon ghee
1. In a heavy skillet, dry roast the flour over medium heat, stirring continuously, and let it cool.
2. After it has cooled, add one cup of the grated coconut and salt, and mix well.
3. Sprinkle the water over the flour, and mix well with hand. This mixture should be wet, but not lumpy. Add a few more spoons of water if necessary. Take a little of the flour mix between your index finger and thumb, press gently and let it fall gently. If it holds its form as it falls, the flour is damp enough.
4. Add ghee and mix well. Though not called for in the traditional recipe, it adds a flakier texture to puttu.
5. Spread a piece of wet cheesecloth in the steamer insert, and spread the flour and coconut mixture on top. Cover and steam for 10 to 12 minutes.
6. Serve hot with brown chickpeas curry or banana.
Photo: Roasted finger millet flour and coconut. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran