September 1-7 is celebrated every year as National Nutrition Week in India. Today, let’s take a look at an amazing “super cereal” that can help control diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis and lots more.

A generation ago, many Indians, especially in the southern part of the country, were familiar with ragi or finger millet (Eleusine coracana L.). The once well-known cereal is however totally absent in most people’s diets today. This is quite surprising and unfortunate, considering the nutritive and therapeutic value of finger millet for the human body. Besides, it is a very adaptable crop that is admirably suited to Indian climatic conditions, making it doubly significant. Let’s take a look at a few of the benefits of finger millet, and some delicious recipes for ragi laddus, cookies and pakodas!

Ragi: A Brief History

Finger millet originated in Africa and has been cultivated for many thousands of years in Uganda and Ethiopia. In India, the crop was probably introduced 4000 years ago, and has been found in archeological excavations in the Harappan Civilization.

Benefits of Ragi

#1 Ragi has high protein content

The grain’s protein content is comparable to that of rice. However, some ragi varieties have shown double that level. More importantly, this protein content is quite unique. The main protein fraction is eleusinin, which has a high biological value, meaning that it is easily incorporated into the body. There are also significant quantities of tryptophan, cystine, methionine and total aromatic amino acids. If that sounds too complicated, all you need to know is that these are considered crucial to human health, and that most cereals are deficient in these components. This high protein content makes finger millet a very important factor in preventing malnutrition. The cereal can be an especially good source of protein for vegetarians because of its methionine content that constitutes about 5% of the protein.

#2 Ragi is a rich source of minerals

Ragi is also a very rich source of minerals. It has been found to have between 5-30 times the calcium content found in other cereals. It is also rich in phosphorus, potassium and iron. Calcium is of course an important component in maintaining bone density and health. Thus, finger millet would be a healthier alternative to over-the-counter supplements, especially for people who might be at risk of osteoporosis or low hemoglobin levels.

The study, “The Lost Crops of Africa,” published by the United States National Academies sees finger millet as a potential “super cereal” and points out that “the world’s attitude towards finger millet must be reversed. Of all major cereals, this crop is one of the most nutritious.” The study notes that people in Uganda and southern Sudan have healthy, strapping physiques despite eating just one meal a day, and attributes this to finger millet.

#3 Ragi controls diabetes

The rapid rise in the prevalence of diabetes has led to a great demand for foods containing complex carbohydrates with high dietary fiber levels and beneficial phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are a varied group of chemical compounds derived from plants, which are considered to be important factors in our capacity to combat disease. All these components are usually found in the outer layer of the grain or the seed coat, and so, it is generally a good idea to consume whole grains.

Especially with finger millet, the grain’s seed coat is richer in polyphenols as compared to grains such as barley, rice, maize and wheat. For example, it has 40 times the phenolic content of rice and 5 times that of wheat. Among the millets, it is comparable to foxtail millet, and second only to kodo millet. Initial studies have also shown that finger millet controls blood glucose levels, and hyperglycemic and oxidative stress. Finger millet has also shown promise in accelerating wound healing among diabetics.

#4 Ragi has anti-microbial properties

Finger millet has been found to act against a number of bacteria including Bacillus cereus, which causes food poisoning, Salmonella sp., which causes a typhoid-like fever, and Staphylococcus aureus, one of the primary causes of skin and soft tissue infections such as abscesses, furuncles, and cellulitis.

#5 Ragi has anti-cancer potential

Finger millet is also rich in antioxidants, which have sort of become a byword in health books today. Antioxidants prevent excessive oxidation (how surprising!), which could otherwise cause cancer and ageing because of cell damage. The phenolic acids, flavonoids and tannins present in finger millet seed coats have very effective antioxidant properties. In general, it has been shown that people on millet-based diets have lower incidences of esophageal cancer than those on wheat or maize-diets.

#6 Ragi keeps you young

Aside from the phenolic content and antioxidants which are important factors in preventing ageing, finger millet and kodo millet have specifically shown potential in inhibiting cross-linking of collagen. Collagen cross-linking is the process by which cross-links form between or within collagen molecules in tendons, skin, and even blood vessels. Collagen is what gives tissues their elasticity, and cross-linking reduces this ability, leading to the stiffness commonly associated with age.

#7 Ragi reduces “bad” cholestrol, prevents cardiovascular disease

Emerging research has shown that finger millet has the potential to reduce risk of cardiovascular diseases. Technically speaking, finger millet reduces concentrations of serum triglycerides and inhibits lipid oxidation and LDL cholesterol oxidation. LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) cholesterol is what is termed “bad” cholesterol and is especially troublesome when oxidized. Oxidized LDL inflames the arteries, leading to arteriosclerosis and the risk of heart attack or strokes.

The State of Ragi Cultivation Today

Considering all these benefits, it is extremely surprising that in a world desperate for health foods and miracle cures, most people have never heard of ragi. In many places where it is grown, it is looked upon as a “poor person’s crop” or a “famine food.” In the United States, it is often used as birdseed! Though it is in decline in Africa, it is still an important crop in the eastern part of the continent, especially among subsistence farmers. But in India, it is greatly neglected and fast disappearing.

For example, according to the government’s crop production statistics, in 1998-99, about 2.7 million tons of finger millet were harvested from 1.8 million hectares. Fast-forward to 2013-14, and those numbers have fallen by 95%. Only 90,000 tons were harvested from 99,000 hectares. This, despite the fact that this is a very hardy crop that grows even in arid regions with minimal water. Finger millet is also available in a range of varieties that can be grown in monsoon-heavy regions to dry areas and in the Himalayas as well, upto an altitude of 2300 meters.

Hopefully, there will be a turnaround in finger millet’s fortunes. Take a look at the recipes below, and if you enjoy them, include more ragi in your diet. That would be one miniscule step in the right direction. Also, Isha Shoppe offers many ragi-based products with home delivery in India.

Ragi Recipes

Ragi Malt

Traditionally, ragi is given to infants and young children as a ragi malt because it is easier to digest, though it’s nutritional value is somewhat decreased.

Ragi Malted Flour

  • Soak ragi grains for 12 hours. Germinate by tying them in a thin/muslin cloth for 2-3 days
  • Dry the germinated grains
  • Remove the roots
  • Dry roast
  • Grind to a fine powder and sieve

Ragi Malt – Salty version

 

  • Mix 3-4 tsp of ragi malted flour with a little bit of water, enough to make a paste
  • Boil 1 cup of water
  • Add salt
  • Add the ragi paste and cook for 2-3 minutes
  • Optional: After it cools down, add buttermilk/yogurt

Ragi Malt – Sweet version

  • Mix 3-4 tsp of ragi malted flour with a little bit of water, enough to make a paste
  • Boil 1 cup of water
  • Add 3-4 tsp of jaggery
  • Add 1/4 tsp of cardamom powder
  • Add the ragi paste and cook for 2-3 minutes
  • Can have it either hot or cold

Ragi Ladoo

 

Ingredients

Ragi (Finger Millet) flour : 1 cup
Ghee : ½ cup
Palm Sugar : ½ cup
Grated Fresh Coconut : ¼ cup
Black Sesame : 2 tbsp
Groundnuts : 2 tbsp
Almonds : 8-10
Cardamom powder : ¼ tsp

Method

  • In a shallow pan and low heat, dry roast black sesame, groundnuts and grated fresh coconut separately. Keep them aside to cool.
  • Remove the skin from the groundnuts.
  • Add a tsp of ghee to the pan and toast the almonds for a minute or two and keep them aside.
  • Add the Ragi flour to the pan along with 2-3 tbsp of ghee and roast for 15-20 minutes. Add more ghee if needed.
  • Add the roasted almonds, groundnuts, coconut and black sesame. Keep stirring.
  • Add the palm sugar and cardamom powder. Stir for another 2 minutes.
  • Take off the heat and let it cool.
  • Apply ghee onto your palm; take 3-4 tbsp of the mixture and roll into a ladoo. Add more ghee if needed to make a firm, round ladoo.

Ragi Halwa

 

Ingredients

Ragi Flour : 1.5 cups
Jaggery or Coconut Sugar or Sugar (powdered) : 1.5 cups
Coconut Oil or Ghee : 1/2 cup
Cashews : 1/2 cup
Cardamoms (powdered – seeds only) : 4
Water : 3 cups
Coconut Oil or Ghee (to sauté the cashews) : 1 tbsp
Tip: Jaggery and coconut sugar go well with coconut oil; sugar goes well with ghee.

Method

  • Sauté the cashews in 1 tbsp. coconut oil or ghee. Keep aside.
  • Mix ragi flour and water into a paste.
  • Heat the mixture in a thick-bottomed vessel on medium heat, stirring constantly.
  • After 3 minutes, mix in the powdered sugar and cardamom powder.
  • Start adding the coconut oil (or ghee), 2 tablespoons at a time. Keep mixing until all the oil (or ghee) is used.
  • Lower the heat and keep stirring for another 3–4 minutes. The mixture will start coming together – from a pasty consistency to a ball. Add the sautéed cashews.
  • Cook for another 2–3 minutes, mixing constantly. As the mixture cooks, the oil will start to separate from the ragi ball. Drain the excess oil and transfer the halwa to a glass bowl. Serve warm.

Ragi Pakoda

 

Ingredients:

Ragi (finger millet) flour: 2 cups
Roasted gram/chickpea flour (Besan) 1/2 cup
Cabbage (shredded) 2 cups
Capsicum/Bell pepper (chopped small): 1/2 cup
Curry leaves: 1 tablespoon
Coriander leaves: 1/4 cup
Ginger: 1 inch piece
Cashew pieces: 1/2 cup
White sesame seeds : 1 tablespoon
Black pepper powder: 1/2 teaspoon
Groundnut/Peanut oil: 200ml
Salt: 1 teaspoon
Chaat masala: 1/2 teaspoon

Method

  • Peel and mince the ginger. Coarsely chop the coriander and curry leaves. Mix the veggies and herbs – cabbage, capsicum, ginger, coriander and curry leaves – in a bowl.
  • Mix the dry ingredients – ragi flour, besan, cashew pieces, sesame seeds, salt, and black pepper powder/chili powder – in a large mixing bowl.
  • Heat the oil for frying. Add 2 tablespoons of this hot oil to the dry mix. Now add the vegetables to the dry ingredients and mix well. Add just enough water to form a dough. Make bite-sized ragi pakoda pieces and fry them in hot oil.
  • Sprinkle with chaat masala before serving.

Ragi Cookies

 

Ingredients

Ragi Flour: 2/3 cup
Whole Wheat Flour: 2/3 cup
Butter: ½ cup
Brown Sugar: ½ cup
Yogurt: 1 tbsp.
Baking Powder: ¼ tsp.
Freshly Ground Cardamom: 1 – 2 tsp.
Vanilla Extract: 1 tsp.

Method

  • Mix the flours and spread them in a flat baking pan.
  • Roast the flours in the pre-heated oven (180°C) shaking the baking pan every few minutes, until toasted (6-7 minutes.)
  • Meanwhile, beat the butter and sugar until soft and creamy.
  • Dissolve the baking powder in the yogurt, then add the spices.
  • Once the flour mixture is cooled, mix all the ingredients together to form a ball.
  • Divide the ball into 4 equal pieces.
  • From each piece form five balls.
  • Place each one on a greased cookie sheet (baking pan) and use a fork to flatten each ball, making crossed lines on top.
  • Bake for 12 minutes at 180°C.
  • Let the cookies cool before removing.
  • Keep in an airtight tin for one day to let the flavors develop.

If you’d like to order readymade ragi cookies, Isha Shoppe offers them with home delivery.

Ragi Dosa

 

Ingredients

Ragi Dosa Mix : [available at Isha Shoppe]

Method

  • Heat a tawa and ladle the dosa mix onto the tawa.
  • Gradually spread the mix a thin circle by lifting and rotating the tawa. Ragi dosas are usually difficult to spread with a ladle as they tend to tear.
  • Grease with some oil on the edges and middle.
  • Flip over to the other side after a few minutes.
  • Transfer to a plate after a few minutes.

Food Body

Editor’s Note: The book is available on a “name your price” basis. Pay as you wish or click “Claim for Free”. Food Body looks at the kind of foods the body is most comfortable with and explores the most appropriate ways of consuming such foods. The 33-page booklet is a first step to tune into your body and figure out what suits it best.