Eleusine coracana. That’s the scientific name for finger millet. Isn’t it the sexiest scientific name you’ve ever heard? Finger millet, a small, dark purplish grain that looks like black quinoa, is native to Ethiopia and was brought to India about 4000 years ago. Called Ragi in India, finger millet is used in cooking in South India and a few other states. It is also used in Nepal and parts of Africa.
Being cheap and high in nutrition, ragi is a staple of the poor. Ragi mudde or baked balls of ragi dough eaten with a curry made with greens is filling and perfect for a vegetarian farmer’s breakfast. Rice being more expensive became the staple of the richer classes in South India. Interestingly though, ragi has a lot more nutrition than rice, especially white rice. It is lower in carbohydrates and fat and higher in fiber than wheat or brown rice. It has a higher iron and essential amino acid content than other grains.
Ragi is used in many dishes in South India, to make porridge, malted drinks, in unleavened flat breads called rottis and in dosas (thin crepes). The flavor of ragi is very distinct from wheat. I’ve heard some people say that it is an acquired taste. But I’ve always loved ragi rottis and muddes and considered it a special treat when my mom made it. My husband loved the taste of ragi rottis the first time he ate it and is always excited when I make it.
Kanaka dasa, a warrior turned poet in the 16th century worked to eradicate classism. Using the ragi/rice divide as an analogy, he recommended mixing both in cooking. I wonder if this is the reason for the variety of ragi rotti recipes that are out there. Growing up, my mom always mixed ragi flour with cooked rice. But many people make the rotti with just ragi flour. Either way you make it, this is a rustic and earthy but wholesome bread that delights your palate with its texture and taste. Try it!
Ragi is already experiencing a resurgence in India and in the diaspora with many using it as a substitute for other flours. Not only is it a highly nutritious grain, it is also a hardy grain and grows in depleted soils, low rainfall and high elevations. It’s time to spread the word about finger millet to the rest of the world as well.
- 2 cups ragi flour (available in Indian or Asian grocery stores)
- ½ cup cooked white rice
- ½ cup yellow onion, finely diced
- 1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
- 1 teaspoon salt or to taste
- ½ – ¾ cup water, warmed in the microwave for 30 seconds
- Oil to cook the rottis (any high heat oil will work but I love coconut oil)
Mix together 2 cups of ragi flour with the rest of the ingredients in a large bowl. Add more water as needed to form a firm dough.
Cut a ziplock bag to form 2 layers of plastic. Lay them one on top of another and slightly oil the insides
Divide the dough into 6 equal parts and smoothen each out into a ball.
Heat a skillet (I prefer cast iron, but non-stick works too) over medium heat for a few minutes or till water sprinkled on the skillet sizzles. Move to the next step while waiting for the skillet to heat.
Place in between the plastic sheets and roll out to circle that is about an 1/8 of an inch thick. Start with patting down the dough with your fingers and you can then finish with a rolling pin.
Smear the skillet with 1 teaspoon oil. Remove the top plastic sheet. Bring the ragi rotti with the plastic sheet underneath it to the skillet. Lift off the plastic sheet and then place on the skillet taking care not to tear the rotti or get the plastic into contact with the hot skillet.
Let the roti cook for 3 minutes or till you see the sides curling up. Flip over and oil the other side too with 1 teaspoon oil. If the pan starts getting smoky, turn down the heat to medium low and add some oil to the pan. Cook for another 2-3 minutes or till the entire rotti has darkened and there are a few brown spots. Look closely, this will be hard to see with the dark color of the ragi. Thinner rottis will cook faster and will likely be crisper. Thicker rottis will take more than 5 minutes on each side to cook. I usually have 2 skillets going in parallel to reduce the cooking time.
Make the rest of your ragi rottis and serve with this onion chutney or just a dollop of ghee for a satisfying and nutritious dinner!
Notes: You can also use other ingredients such as grated carrots, cut coconut or grated coconut. If you cover the skillet with a lid while you cook the rottis, they will be softer.