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The great staple cereal of our ancestors was barley

What do you suppose was the staple crop of our ancestors?

The only cereal mentioned in the Rig Veda? The everyday grain of the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation?


If you answered rice, you would be wrong. There is a long and honourable Indian tradition of rice cultivation (South Indians may not be thrilled to know that North Indians were the first rice-eaters; it spread to south much later).


   If you answered ‘wheat’, you would be right; well, sort of. They have found enough evidence to suggest that wheat was a staple in Mohenjodaro. But excavations at later Indus Valley Sites have not shown any traces of wheat cultivation. And in any case, for all its macho, North Indian associations, wheat was no favourite of the early Aryans either. It doesn’t show up in the Rig Veda and turns up only in later Aryan literature.


   The great staple cereal of our ancestors was, in fact, barley.


   Yups, barley! That’s a grain that most of us do not eat today and whose Hindi name, jau, may actually be less familiar to readers of this column than the English word, barley.


   In recent years, much has been said and written about ancient Indian grains. There has also been a move, in the West, to go beyond white rice and refined flour and to rediscover other grains. Frankly, I am as baffled as the next person by the sudden invasion of amaranth and quinoa, and many other grains that I had never heard of before.


   So, if you share my bewilderment, here is a guide to the grains you will come across, some old, some new and some, even as ancient as the hype suggests.


Amaranth: Despite what you may hear, amaranth is not an ancient Indian grain. It is not even a grain at all and the only ‘Indians’ who ate it were South American ‘Indians’. Columbus brought the plant to Europe, colonialists planted it here and its leaves are eaten all over India. (Local names include bathua, chua, ramdhan and rajgira for the grains).


   Because it is not a real cereal, it has a high protein content and is gluten free. That explains its current fashionability.


Barley: For all the Rig Vedic associations, barley is best known these days as a raw material for booze: in the whisky and beer industry. Pot barley is the barley version of brown rice. The germ and bran are intact. Pearl barley, like white rice, has the bran removed.


   Modern chefs use barley for risottos (I have had terrific barley risottos at both ATM and Annamaya in Delhi) and the texture can be amazing. It is low in gluten but not gluten-free.


Buckwheat: You may have come across this in our country, where the flour is called kuttu. But it is much more popular in other cuisines. The Russians make a variety of buckwheat dishes including blinis, the pancakes eaten with caviar. The Japanese use buckwheat for soba noodles. And in France, buckwheat is used for crepes.


   Like many other fashionable so-called cereals, it is not really a grain at all and comes from a plant in the same family as rhubarb or sorrel. So it is gluten-free and probably healthier than normal wheat.


Corn: When I was a child, I used to be confused by the term corn. Did it mean ‘bhutta’ as I thought? Or was it something else? I was baffled because drawings in my school geography books showed a wheat-like plant. My teachers assured me that ‘bhutta’ was maize and that corn was different. (Before you ask, this was at Campion School in Mumbai).


   Of course, my teachers were talking nonsense. Corn and maize are the same thing. The confusion could have arisen from the English habit of referring to any major grain crop as ‘corn’. Real corn is the same as maize which is the same as bhutta. As should be obvious, corn is not a grain but you can get flour from bhutta just as you can get cornflakes, and taco chips and God alone knows what else.


"All corn products should be gluten-free unless wheat has been added at some stage; which it sometimes is, especially to makki rotis."

   Two corn facts that may surprise you: It is the largest crop in the US not because Americans love bhutta but because it is used as animal-feed (most American steaks are no more than corn that has been processed by a cow’s gut), and is the basis of corn syrup, a cheap, unhealthy, sweetener that the processed food industry loves.


   And two: there is no ancient Indian corn tradition. So when Punjabis tell you that they have been eating makki ki roti for centuries, do point out to them that the British introduced corn (the American plants) to the region.


   Indians know makki, as in the flour we make rotis with. We have some experience of cornflour (essential for Chinese food) which is a refined, finely ground version of makki and now, polenta, a trendy Italian cornmeal is also available.


   All corn products should be gluten-free unless wheat has been added at some stage; which it sometimes is, especially to makki rotis.


Bajra: This is one of a category of grains that we call millets: it is often called pearl millet in English. India is the world’s largest producer and all Indians are familiar with its uses.


   Bajra is gluten-free but our cooks often mix a little wheat atta in the dough so be careful if you want to avoid gluten.


Ragi: A currently trendy food, ragi is actually an ancient Indian grain dating back to the later part of the Indus Valley Civilisation. It is a millet (the English name is finger millet) and is gluten-free. Anecdotal evidence suggests that ragi rotis may be better for health than wheat chapatis.


Jowar: It is called sorghum in English and though it is popular throughout Western India as a food, its cultivation in such countries as the US is for animal feed purposes. Jowar is gluten-free and generally recommended over wheat for rotis and the like.


Oats: Not really a part of the Indian diet except as horsefeed, oats are trendy in the West because they are a good source of dietary fibre. That’s why we see an explosion of oat products: breakfast oats, oat biscuits, oatmeal pancakes and the like.


   Oats do not contain gluten; they contain a protein called avenin. But if you have a gluten allergy, you need to be careful because oats are often contaminated with gluten-containing grains and oat products sometime have wheat added to them.


Quinoa: The super-trendy, super-grain. It is a protein and not really a cereal so if you want to avoid carbohydrates and gluten, it is a good choice. I use it as a rice substitute but it has none of the flavour of rice so you’ll need to tart it up if you want a tasty staple.


Rye: Unless you like American whiskey, the only time you will come across rye is if you eat rye bread. For example, pumpernickel, a dark, heavy European bread is a classic rye product. But rye has very little gluten so most commercial bakers will throw a little wheat into the dough to make sure that the bread rises.


Sago: Proper sago (called Pearl Sage) is a starch extracted from the sago plant of South East Asia. This is used for sabudana pudding or khichri. It is popular as a fasting food because it is neither a grain nor a vegetable.


   However, the term sabudana is also used for tapioca pearls, leading to some confusion.


Tapioca: The cassava is an important crop in warm countries. Tapioca, the food of the Gods if you are a Malayali, is the flour made from the cassava. You can make sabudana from the milk of the cassava root.


Semolina: We call it suji (or rava) and act as if it is our own special flour. Actually, it is just a product of one stage of the processing of a hard wheat called durum. In Italy, the flour of durum wheat is used to make pasta.


   Semolina usually has a high gluten content so steer clear of that Rava Dosa, that upma or that suji halwa if you are avoiding gluten.


Spelt: For some reason, this is a trendy grain, much favoured by so-called nutritionists. It is just wheat, but an ancient form. The health food argument is that it may have more vitamins and minerals than normal wheat. Nutritionists sometimes forget to point out that it is also gluten-rich.




  • Rao 26 Sep 2017

    This is definitely informative. I switched to "gluten-free" products a few months ago & I'm loving it. While I was visiting Bangalore, I came across a popular movement that has started - Golden Grains/millets (Siri Dhanya). And they comprise of these millets as each one has "healing" properties - Foxtail, Barnyard, Kodo, Little, Brown top. Also came across sweet shops making gulab jamun etc in foxtail millet & the diff was negligible. The Netflix show "Whats with Wheat" is also very informative.

Posted On: 23 Sep 2017 04:02 PM
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