Ragi is back - but only as exotica

No body knows for sure how the ragi bandwagon started, but all of a sudden the urban elite became curious about the grain. Today, it is being minutely scrutinised by a few truth-seekers while eateries make a beeline for its cuisine

By E Vijayalakshmi
Published: Monday 30 June 2003

Ragi is back - but only as exotica

-- (Credit: Photographs: Siddharth Rao)One fine day, while traversing through lush green fields, lord Indra suddenly saw his two dear souls -- akki and ragi -- at loggerheads with each other. The rain god soon found they were wrangling over 'power' -- a matter that seemed inconsequential to him. "Good lord," he cried out. "Go and work till I tell you to stop." When the lord finally summoned them back he was left thunderstruck: ragi looked fresh and bright, but akki was wilting wide.

Today the roles have reversed: ragi wilts and akki is everyone's favourite. The tall, slender and luminescent being, lovingly nicknamed rice, is too much of a temptation to resist. Ragi is just a 'coarse' delight. Even a fancy name, finger millet, brings no respite. Being the native of the African highlands in Ethiopia and Uganda certainly has its disadvantages. Poor dark grain!

Karnataka, which accounts for 64 per cent of the total production of ragi in India, is the centre of the grain's autobiography. For centuries, ragi was synonymous with health for people in the southern parts of the state, especially the rural kannadiga communities. They cherished ragi rotis and muddes (ragi balls that are meant to be gobbled without chewing). But the magic did not last long, thanks to the much sought after rice and wheat. The public distribution system added fuel to the fire -- it sold rice for Rs 2 per kilogramme (kg) but ragi at Rs 6-7 per kg. Consequently, the working class -- ragi's main consumers -- also disowned it.

It seemed that the misery would continue forever, but suddenly something happened. Maybe Deve Gowda's admission about ragi being his traditional food ruffled a few feathers among the politically active kannadigas. No body knows for sure how the ragi bandwagon started, but all of a sudden the urban elite became curious about the grain. Today, it is being minutely scrutinised by a few truth-seekers while eateries make a beeline for its cuisine.

Why would anyone want a coarse meal? When asked this, ragi enthusiasts, essentially researchers and academicians, are taken aback. "The West called it coarse since it was cultivated in the old world. If it is coarse, then it should be poor in nutrients, which it definitely is not," asserts A Seetharam, an official of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Bangalore.

He for sure has a valid point. Paeans can be written on ragi's nutritional value. It is superior to rice and wheat, in calcium, fibre, iron and mineral content, apart from being rich in proteins. Additionally, it's a cool food -- it is alkaline in nature, while most other foods are acidic. Since its fibre levels are quite high, it gets digested slowly, releasing carbohydrates in small quantities. In fact, two ragi muddes taken in the morning can sustain you for a whole day.

Still not convinced? Then, scrutinise its agrarian treasure trove. " Ragi is a rain-fed crop grown by farmers having meagre resources. It is hardy and stable and doesn't require much fertilisers," says J Mushtari Begum, professor at the University of Agricultural Sciences (uas), Bangalore. What's more, it can be stored for at least 50 years. No wonders it is called the 'famine reserve'. The grain even has our culture rooted in it -- it is one of the few crops indigenous to the Indian agriculture. "It has got a 5,000-year old history. In Karnataka its cultivation dates back to 1800 bc," reveals Seetharam.

Maybe the urge to go back to their roots has mandated kannadigas to take an about turn. Fortunately, even though the land under ragi has come down significantly, its productivity has increased. Today, it is becoming the usp of a few folks. For instance, Foodworld, the popular supermarket chain, is planning a 'ragi flour campaign' for this July. "We are currently selling three tonnes of ragi flour per month. After the promotion we hope our sales would increase to 10 tonnes," tells S Ponnu Subramanian, controller, merchandising, Foodworld Supermarkets Limited. Still ragi would be way behind, with Foodworld selling 140-150 tonnes of rice and about 15 tonnes of wheat grains every month.

Many other supermarkets like Foodworld stock a variety of ragi products, starting from huri hittu (ragi malt) to dosa mix. But it is Begum's department that has actually come up with a unique range of 33 ragi products. "More products mean more consumers," explains Chaman Farzana, a research associate at uas. " We even have sound research to support our products," she adds.

The uas endeavour to popularise ragi has benefited quite a few women entrepreneurs. One of them is Ashwathamma Narayan Reddy, who makes ragi flour, papad, chakli and malt at her centre in Anekkal, about 25 kilometres from Bangalore. "Till I met Begum, I never knew that so many ragi products could be made," she says eagerly.

It is evident that she is jubilant. So is Babu Rao. He manages Halli Mane, a restaurant started 10 months ago in Malleswaram, a predominantly kannadiga neighbourhood in Bangalore. Snuggled among its wide repertoire are ragi muddes, rotis, dosas and thampu pania (a cold drink). More than 2,500 people visit the restaurant everyday and consume close to 250 ragi muddes -- amazing considering they are sold for only four hours a day. Rao attributes the grand success to curiosity. "Our customers include kannadigas who come here to eat their traditional food and the non-kannadigas who are curious about the culture," he says. The prices also make a visit to Halli Mane worthwhile -- a plate of ragi mudde with its accompaniments of a curry and a dry subzi costs just Rs 5. Certainly, the coarse grain is being rediscovered. But will this mouth-watering delicacy remain confined to Karnataka? Will it not once again pervade the lives of all? The decision is definitely ours.

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