Ragi has always been much derided millet – at-least in southern India. It has always been seen as the poor man’s staple, and when former Prime Minister Deve Gowda went out of his way to retain ragi in his diet the humble millet was subject to still more humiliation. It did not help that a plump snoozing Deve Gowda on stage resembled a ragi mudde (ragi ball) in appearance.
The association had multiple connotations. First the mudde in which form ragi is consumed most is a nice plump round in shape not unlike Deve Gowda’s girth. The other connotation adding to the mix had to do with the universal aesthetic apprehension of Indian men and women – the ragi millet and mudde both are dark in color, they more or less resemble the standard Indian dark brownish complexion. Now neither Deve Gowda nor his ragi mudde had the chance to try their hands at Fair & Lovely and so the association (and the joke) stuck.
But this wasn’t the first time ragi had been subject to condescension of the snobby and the fair skinned. Sometime in the 17th century a Kannada poet-saint Shri Kanaka Dasa had composed an amusing poem narrating an account of a rice grain that gets into a tussle with ragi. The rice grain’s case was simple: ragi was the food of the sudra, its usage limited to being downtrodden’s food and not sacred rites. Miffed with this insult, ragi retorts that it was the staple diet of the poor. The two finally go to Shri Rama for adjudication. In what I’ve heard to be a test of endurance or imprisonment the humble ragi comes out winning. The elitist staple – the fair skinned polished rice grain simply couldn’t endure as long as the ragi and had rotten away fairly quickly. Thus the debate was settled in ragi favor.
Ragi – ready for harvest
I believe every word of Shri Kanaka Dasa’s account because I’ve witnessed how a couple of large sacks of ragi have been lying in our backyard shed for a so many years without rotting. But before I shall launch into a boastful paragraph about my very own roots being in the farming profession and how I’d like to identify myself first as a humble farmer
fumble harmer just as Deve Gowda does I’d like to make this post a little more interesting by dwelling on the class, caste and cultivation dynamics surrounding ragi. For centuries ragi remained the staple diet for the poor whereas rice occupied the commanding heights of culinary hierarchy. While paddy required extensive irrigation ragi being the rugged millet it is required much less water and is easily cultivable in a lot more terrains and soil types. These factors naturally lead to a steep disparity in price. Since not a lot of low earning castes could afford rice the lower castes especially the ones that stuck to working the fields of land lords for generations after generations were stuck with ragi or sorghum.
Those who haven’t the money to buy expensive grains are not likely to have much left for extensive culinary habits so ragi based dishes are naturally the simplest to make without requiring a lot of other ingredient that a pompous biriyani or paneer masala might require. But discussing dishes might lead us to discussing recipes, and considering this is a centre-right commentary site I believe it is important (and customary) to blame the government for messing up the situation before one thinks about finishing the post with some recipes from Shri Deve Gowda’s kitchen.
The early decades of 20th century saw massive irrigation projects coming online and when water was available in plenty crop patterns underwent a massive change in Southern Karnataka and some regions of Tamil Nadu as well. Farmers in dry regions who had for generations stuck to sorghum and ragi took to paddy. They also took to cash crops such as sugarcane, turmeric, coconut farms and flowers etc. In just a few decades centuries old crop patterns were being abandoned for new cash crops watered by freshly dug canals. The decision of successive governments to let rice and wheat monopolize cereal rations in the public distribution system also dealt a blow to ragi. All these factors led to a steady decline in both cultivation and consumption of ragi across both Karnataka and areas of Tamil Nadu.
The decline in ragi cultivation had far reaching consequences for many communities whose lifestyles were woven around the social and economic dynamics created by traditional crop patterns. The lifespan of the crop, its field preparation, weeding and irrigation needs were the basis on which the landless and mostly ‘untouchable’ communities had defined their relationships with the landholding upper castes of mofussil India.
A millet crop that produced excess cattle fodder allowed the landlord to be generous in his fodder freebies to his farmhands. Long intervals between crops allowed for periods of rest, maintenance and preparation for next crop. Perhaps the landlord would also let his farm-hands graze their cattle in the fields when it was left uncultivated between crops. Sometimes the payment for work too came in the form of millets – without large commercial markets and a ‘government procurement of crops’ what the farmer had in excess was best shared with his farm-hands. All of this changed when ragi and sorghum made way for cash crops, fertilizers that allowed for shorter interval between subsequent crops. Pesticides and tractors eliminated a large amount of manual labor. In the yet to be liberalized India (perennially short of employment opportunities) to be a ‘low caste’ farm-hand whose traditional lifestyles were disturbed by a fast changing agricultural landscape often meant vulnerability to landholding caste’s rapaciousness.
But in the India of today things have taken a turn for the good. Ragi is making a comeback as a novelty ingredient. Restaurants are offering ‘ragi specials’; some half-baked alleged dieticians are prescribing a diet more inclusive of millets. Even Britannia has come up with ragi biscuits. Rumors persist that ragi is a good substitute for rice and wheat that have come to totally dominate our diet. I’m not sure if ragi would help diabetics – it is quite rich in carbohydrates but generally has enough calcium that you can skip taking calcium pills.
All this is not to take away the sheer yumminess that ragi can offer. There are a couple of dishes I wish to introduce to readers here. You will notice both are extremely simple recipes requiring very few ingredients. These maybe quite obvious to many South Indians so I beg their pardon and ask them to preach the virtues of ragi to others!
Ragi mudde (sankati/kali):
The first recipe is the ragi kali or ragi mudde or ragi balls. The most favorite of Deve Gowda’s ragi based delicacies (or perhaps the only one, we don’t know!) this dish requires at a minimum just ragi flour, salt, few drops of oil and water.
- Boil one and a half cup of water. Add a few drops of oil and salt to taste before slowly adding ragi batter (1 cup of ragi flour + 1.5 cups of water, mixed without lumps). Keep stirring for 8-10 minutes on low flame. Check the mixture’s texture and thickness.
- In some households a wooden stick like apparatus (a sort of pestle with round ends) which is also frequently applied to discipline erring husbands is used to mix the dough and break any lumps. The mixture can be taken off stove and shaped into …well, any shape desired with wet hands (usually rounds)
- Serve with some delicious sambhar, kuzhambu or just some yoghurt/buttermilk and pickle.
Commonly available street food ragi porridge defies the stereotype of street-food having to be spicy, exotic or just too oily. The porridge too requires minimal ingredients and for those inclined you could consume it with any number of add-ons!
- Simply dissolve ragi flour in a cup of water (2 tablespoons of flour for ¼ cup of water).
- Boil another cup of water – slowly add the ragi mix to boiling water. Keep stirring with the husband-disciplining device lest your mixture contain lumps. Stir for 8-10 minutes.
- Allow mixture to cool and mix buttermilk. Add salt to taste. Serve with any number of side dishes you prefer. Crisps, pickles, fresh cut mangoes, you name it!
Ragi was a common staple across South Karnataka and many regions of Tamil Nadu. Cultivation has dwindled to a fraction of what it was earlier but there still exist farmers who have stuck with ragi to retain the tradition if not for commercial purposes. Large gunny bags of ragi millet can still be found in backyard sheds of these farmers. They are left there and forgotten for years together.
Their presence is an assurance to the old school farmers that there is some part of the old that is still sticking around. If all the tumultuous changes of recent past one day give way to the great unknown they can reach out to something that was part of the traditions of their forefathers. It is their way of staying prepared for the worst. It is their way of staying in touch with the past.