THE BLOG

What's That on My Plate?

05/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Millets. It used to be a word I'd cram from my geography textbook in grade Nine. Millets were described as coarse grains grown in parts of India where the soil was not fertile and water was scarce. Apart from this disempowering description, my only other understanding of millets was from what my mother cooked at home in the winters-a roti, or kind of bread that you ate with butter and spicy lentils. It looked unappetizing and plain, tasted strange and I would have died of mortification if any of my friends from school ever caught me eating that stuff. I almost forgot it till a nutritionist began coaxing me to try it instead of the regular wheat flour most Indians eat at home. In the one year since I began shopping for millets, I've noticed how many sidelined Indian foods have returned on the shelves, repackaged and chic. True, they are not as widely available as say, sliced white bread, but you can now buy them in a big city. Easy availability was how I began to snack on popped Amaranth- a plant they grow in the Himalayas and one that's believed to be an excellent source of vegan calcium. It is being introduced as an alternative to unhealthy, fried munchies.

I've often thought about this return to local knowledge and food in India. It' a distinctively big city trend. What pushed the well-to-do urban India to this? It can't be a love for traditional or green food, because most people who buy such food are also owners of big cars, for example. The only plausible answer I have is health. As lifestyle diseases like diabetes and previously under-acknowledged ailments like gluten allergy become part of our vocabulary, we've turned to what is available right here. Ragi, popular in Western and Southern India, is finally showing up on the North Indian dining table, its dark, unappetizing colour made over with green vegetables. A few years ago, old people with diabetes would crinkle their noses and drink up a glass of bright green bitter gourd juice, freshly prepared every summer morning. Now, you can buy the capsules and cut out the fuss all year round. And although diabetics should run far away from sugar, the rest of us finally have the option of palm sugar, traditional cane sugar and a local brown powdered jaggery, all local and green.

Not only are tastes changing, but also they are changing enough for entrepreneurs to set up shops. The 40 something, bird-watching, urbane owner of QED wellness stores and lounges in Delhi, Sanjay Tiwari, not only wants to expand his chain but hopes to set up a weekend café that serves clients healthy outside home. Tiwari's slick packaging and branded cloth bags try coaxing even the snobs to re-think food. His stores are in contrast with the equally popular but very simple Navdanya, set up by environmentalist Vandana Shiva. Navdanya offers essential foods and helps shoppers make the transition to both organic and new foods. Last year, it set up a second store, pushed by aggressive customer demand. The rest of the shops, including the wildly popular Indian chain, Fab India, lie somewhere in between.

I wish I could say things are changing for farmers, that they can finally reap dividends on the dazzling agricultural knowledge they have inherited from their ancestors. I have found no evidence to support this, although it is true that some farmers now know they have a steady market for traditional foods. This could be a boon for plant diversity, something which was dying out from lack of markets. Consider this-although India has over 300 types of rice, we've been trained to demand only Basmati. The move to eat half forgotten foods could be a reprieve for at least some plants.

But the big picture still is that a bunch of high spending city slickers are not about to change the fortunes of Indian agriculture or crop diversity overnight. A key reason is that children and the youth still won't opt for a millet pizza base or a sowgram burger bin, unless McDonald's or Pizza Hut makes that shift. This rules out a huge market. Quite a pity, because Indian children are amongst the world's most malnourished and several traditional crops are being recognized as super foods. Secondly, such local foods supplement everyday conventional foods, because tastes are changing, but slowly. And thirdly, this newfound passion is very expensive-many new kinds of flour are 4 times more expensive than commercial wheat flour. Even if economies of scale reduce that gap, it will take several years. But let's not be pessimistic. Let's celebrate that the millet bread of my childhood is back in several lunch boxes, voluntarily.

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