South Indian Millets: How Ancient Grains Are Becoming Trendy Again

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I’ve always viewed health food and super food trends with a smidgen of doubt. Many of these trends go around in circles just like fashion trends and I’ve always veered away from drastically altering my diet based on the flavour of the season. My curiosity around millets was sparked by Michael Pollan’s ‘In Defense of Food’. Pollan speaks at length about how traditional food habits have been eclipsed by processed food and the one thing all our diets ultimately succumb to – convenience.

It’s probably the same reason why millets that have been intrinsic to South Indian diets were pushed out of the spotlight. My maternal grandmother always looked around for healthy alternatives and I still remember her obsession with finger millet (Ragi). It’s one of the few millets that has remained a mainstream food in many parts of interior Karnataka. From Ragi Rotis to Ragi Mudde, ragi is a mainstay in many homes in Karnataka and not a new health food obsession. Most modern dieticians concur that millets are a healthy substitute to rice and wheat largely due to their nutritional values and low glycaemic index that makes them more suitable for diabetics.

During the 2010s, I’ve been amazed at the proliferation of millets across the big cities in South India. It started in the gourmet and organic stores but has started making an appearance even at the tiniest neighbourhood provision stores. It’s also comforting to see many mainstream South Indian vegetarian restaurants offering millet versions of dosas, idlis and upmas at least few times a week. While food experts are pleased to see the return of millets, they are equally concerned at the emergence of polished varieties of millets that take away some of the key health benefits. Here’s a quick guide to some of the best known South Indian millets. Millets are certainly not just a temporary fad; they were part of many diets in India and they’re back where they probably belong:

Barnyard Millet (Kuthiravali in Tamil / Odalu in Telugu / Oodhalu in Kannada / Kavadapullu in Malayalam / Sanwa in Hindi): It is a high source of iron and fibre. This widely available variety is suitable for upmas or Pongal.

Foxtail Millet (Tamil: Thinai / Telugu: Kirra / Malayalam: Thinna / Kannada: Navane/ Hindi: Kangni): Rich in minerals and vitamins and lends a lovely texture to upma or Pongal.

Finger Millet (Ragi in Kannada / Kelvaragu in Tamil / Ragulu in Telugu / Koovarugu in Malayalam/ Mundua in Hindi): A staple in many parts of Karnataka where it’s common to find Ragi Dosas or Rotis. Ragi Porridge is a great substitute for oats or cereal at breakfast.

Little Millet (Samai in Tamil / Same in Kannada / Sama in Telugu and Chama in Malayalam/ Kutki in Hindi): Ideal for crispy dosas or even idlis, this millet is also loaded with iron and fibre.

Pearl Millet (Kannada: Sajje / Telugu: Sajjalu / Tamil: Kambu / Malayalam: Kambam / Bajra: Hindi): A high source of proteins, this millet works well for dosas.

Proso Millet (Tamil & Malayalam: Panivaragu / Kannada: Baragu / Telugu: Varigulu / Barri: Hindi): A great substitute for rice in a risotto or a traditional Bisi Bele Bath, you could also cook this millet along with your rice as a great health option with sambar or rasam.

Recipe: Millet Chicken Biryani
Recipe Courtesy: The Dune Eco Village and Spa, Pondicherry 

Most restaurants feature Millet dishes under their diet friendly or health section. This biryani isn’t just part of the regular menu at the Fun Restaurant at the Dune Pondicherry but is also one of the most
delicious biryanis I’ve ever sampled at a restaurant.



200 gms boneless chicken
150 gms cooked millet (You could use foxtail millet)
1 1/2 Tbsp masala gravy
1 onion chopped
1 tomato chopped
2 Tbsp chopped fresh mint leaves
2 cardamom buds
2 sticks of cinnamon
2 cloves
2 bay leaves
1/4 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
1/4 tsp cumin powder
1/4 tsp coriander powder
A pinch of garam masala powder
50 ml curd
1/2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
Salt (to taste)


1. Heat the bay leaves, cloves, cinnamon & cardamom in a pan.
2. Add the cooked onion and stir for a minute.
3. Add ginger-garlic paste, chopped tomato, mint leaves and all the powders.
4. Add the chicken, masala gravy and curd cook for 5 minutes.
5. Add the millet stir and cook for 5 minutes.

Recipe: Millet Bisi Bele Bath Recipe
Recipe Courtesy: Chef Saroja B.B., Rasa Dhatu Restaurant, Mysuru
There’s probably no better place to sample a Bisi Bele Bath than Mysuru. I was truly enamoured by   this restaurant’s healthy spin on the conventional Bisi Bele Bath.

Risotto with parsley

For the Bisi Bele Bath Masala Powder(You could also buy a ‘ready to use’ powder):


1/4 kg coriander seeds (dhania)
50 gm dry red chilli (guntur – for the pungent flavour)
50 gm dry red chilli (byadagi – for colour)
10 gm cinnamon
10 gm clove
4 piece star anise
4 piece cardamom
50 gm poppy seeds
100 gm black gram dal (urad dal)
100 gm bengal gram dal (chana dal)
4 piece kapok buds (marathi moggu)

Method: Dry roast the above ingredients and powder it using a mixer. This can be stored for several days.

Bisi Bele Bath Recipe


1 cup toor dal
1 cup proso millet or foxtail millet
1 cup finely chopped vegetables (beans, carrot, kohlrabi, peas, tomato)
20 gm jaggery powder
Few sambar onions (shallots)
To taste dry coconut grated
To taste salt
1 tsp turmeric powder
6 cups water
3 Tbsp oil

1. Add all the above ingredients into a pressure cooker and cook for three whistles.
2. Allow the cooker to cool until it can be opened.
3. Open the cooker, add 5 tablespoons of the masala powder.
4. Mix and cook for 10 minutes.
5. Remove the Bisi Bele Bath into a serving bowl.

Seasoning Ingredients (to taste):

Curry Leaves
Dry Red Chillies
Chopped Onions
Chopped Capsicum

Seasoning Instructions: Heat oil in a seasoning pan, add the seasoning ingredients, roast until the mustard begins to sputter, pour the seasoning mixture onto the Bisi bele bath. It is now ready to be served hot.

About the Author :

Ashwin Rajagopalan is a cross cultural training expert and lifestyle writer. When he’s not writing about food, he thinks about gadgets, trends and travel experiences. He enjoys communicating across cultures and borders in his weekday work avatar as a content and editorial consultant for a global major and one of India’s only cross cultural trainers.


The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. NDTV is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information on this article. All information is provided on an as-is basis. The information, facts or opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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