I have found Indian markets to be treasure troves of interesting and reasonably priced ingredients. I buy all of my spices there, which probably cost about 1/6 of what they do at the grocery store, and I love discovering new condiments, grains, beans, and flours.
I have recently been reading about a grain called finger millet, or ragi, that is a staple in South India, and frequently a first food for babies. Because it provides a basic amino acid commonly lacking in starchy foods, ragi is crucial to the diets of the poor in certain parts of Asia. Apparently it is commonly prepared into a a dish called kuzh, and offered to the poor in temples on festivals and holy days in Tamil Nadu and other parts of India. Ragi porridge is considered highly refreshing and nutritious in this part of the world, and it is said that babies and small children love it.
I picked some up at my local Indian market and have been experimenting with it. I decided on a simple porridge preparation to begin with.
1/4 cup ragi flour
1 cup water
1 cup milk/formula/buttermilk
1 tsp maple syrup or to taste
I lightly toasted the ragi flour in the pan before beginning, but I’m not sure if this actually enhanced the flavor or not. It can’t hurt. Whisk the flour into water in the saucepan and turn on heat to medium/low. Continue stirring as the mixture thickens, working out any lumps. Add milk, formula or buttermilk as needed for consistency and cook for another 5 minutes. Add maple syrup and serve. Other traditional add-ins are jaggery*, (more on that in a moment) ghee, which is clarified butter, and buttermilk**(more on that as well).
I found this to be a very pleasant tasting cereal, and baby enjoyed it. I think you could successfully add anything that you would normally add to your baby’s cereal, such as fruit puree, and it would be very palatable. This seems like an excellent whole grain to add to the list of those that we typically give babies here in the United States. It may also be promising for those avoiding wheat.
Later, I took my porridge, which had thickened overnight, and thinned it out with buttermilk (you can also use almond milk- very tasty!), which is traditional in India. I added a bit more maple syrup and stirred it up well. I quite liked the subtle nutty flavor and drank the whole glass.
So, my first ragi experience was a success. It may not win any awards for eye appeal as it gives everything a kind of muddy color, but it has a nice flavor and I look forward to trying other ragi recipes in the future.
*A word on Jaggery: Jaggery is a must-try in my book. It is a kind of unrefined sugar that is traditionally sold in exquisitely rugged, shimmery mounds that you break into as if chiseling a statue. Here’s what it looks like:
Since it is unrefined, it has minerals, salts, and vitamins that are lacking in table sugar. It has also surprisingly been found to have a cleansing effect on particles found in the lungs from dust or smoke. You can see more about that here:
Finally, it is delicious. It has a complex, molasses flavor that is a wonderful addition to oatmeal, cookies, or anywhere you would put brown sugar.
**A word about buttermilk: I know that Americans have very mixed feelings about buttermilk because of the name, and the idea of downing a glass sounds about as health conscious (and appetizing) as sitting down to a slab of butter. But let me assure you, dear reader, that buttermilk contains no butter. The name comes from the process of making cultured butter, but in which you remove the butter itself. At the end of churning the cream (you can try this at home in your standing mixer), you are left with the butter solids and a thin tangy liquid that is called buttermik. Modern buttermilk is generally made separately from butter by adding cultures, thus lightly fermenting it. It has a nice flavor that is a bit like kefir or other yogurt drink, and I believe it has roughly the same nutritional properties. I also believe that it is perfectly healthy for babies over 6 months. On the other hand, I do not recommend anyone over the age of 12 months consuming baby formula as it is foul and rancid smelling.