I will never forget my first (and last) taste of ragi, a long time ago. At the dinner table in a friendÃ¯Â¿Âœs house, I was presented with a scary large ball, swimming in a pond of mutton curry. I bit into it and that was my undoing. Nobody had told me that the last thing one should do with a ragi mudde (ball) is to chew it. The next thing I knew was that my mouth was full of a not-unpleasant tasting gooey mass that pretty much sealed my airways and vocal cords. The merciless laughter on the dining table added to my misery and when finally, what seemed like hours later, the last traces of ragi had left my mouth, everyone chorused, "You should let your tongue, not teeth, do the work when youÃ¯Â¿Âœre eating a ragi mudde!"
It didnÃ¯Â¿Âœt taste half bad, but the texture was too sticky for me. My friendÃ¯Â¿Âœs grandmother, however, swore by it. "I donÃ¯Â¿Âœt have teeth so of course I love it," she said, "but ragiÃ¯Â¿Âœs great even for those blessed with teeth!" Ragi, or finger millet, she told me, was a village staple in Rayalaseema, to which they belonged. Eaten in the form of roti, dosa, porridge and mudde, it was valued for its manifold health benefits as well as its earthy flavour. Village elders believed that ragi was a panacea that warded off everything from heat stroke to diabetes. All the infants in the village were weaned on a thin, nutritious porridge of ragi and milk. The old lady concluded with an old saying from her village that went somewhat like this: "The one who eats ragi mudde has the strength to move hills!"
The mainstay of village diets in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, ragi is grown through dry cultivation by poor farmers. ItÃ¯Â¿Âœs the perfect crop for this drought-prone area, being hardy and resilient. WhatÃ¯Â¿Âœs more, it can be stored for at least 50 years. No wonder itÃ¯Â¿Âœs called the "famine reserve"! Scientists today have found that ragi has more nutritional value than wheat and rice, being rich in proteins, calcium, antioxidants and dietary fibre. In fact, it has so much fibre that two ragi muddes in the morning could keep a farmer feeling energetic and full for the whole day!
In spite of all these health benefits, ragi inexplicably skipped a generation in popularity. The public distribution system which offered rice for Rs 2 a kg but ragi at Rs 6 to Rs 7 a kg added to its growing unpopularity. It was also perceived as being too much of a poor manÃ¯Â¿Âœs staple for the growing middle class to relish it. So, although my friendÃ¯Â¿Âœs grandparents ate ragi as part of their daily diets, her parents just never wanted to eat it that often. It just happened to be on their lunch table the day I visited them!
Today, however, this village stapleÃ¯Â¿Âœs fortune seems to have come full circle. Once looked down upon as poor manÃ¯Â¿Âœs rice, Ragi is now being seen as one of the most fashionable healthy cereals to eat. Health-conscious parents are feeding it to their babies, weight watchers are swearing by ragiÃ¯Â¿Âœs slimming effects and diabetics are being advised to eat it every day. And one of the cheapest foods available to villagers is now being sold at almost Rs 100 a kg … and is still finding takers. In fact, I recently saw that even my favourite biscuit now comes in a healthy ragi variation. From a cheap staple for people like them to an expensive "dietary supplement" of the well off in the metros, whoÃ¯Â¿Âœd have ever thought that ragi would come this far?