Cereals Take Center Stage on Indian Tables

Jan. 18, 2005
While upscale Indian restaurants draw adventuresome trendsetters, retailers have begun to offer simpler fare to suit the palates of more timid consumers. Many of these are built around the cereal grains that form the staple of the average Indian meal.
Traditionally, cereals are the mainstay of Indian meals and account for as much as three-fourths of the caloric intake of the Indian population - rice is the staple in South Indian fare and wheat the mainstay of Northern offerings. Coarse grains - as barley, sorghum, jowar, millet, bajra, and ragi are referred to because they are mostly grown in harsh environments and with limited water resources - were primarily consumed by disadvantaged groups. Also known as "poor people's crops," these are not usually traded in the international markets or even in local markets in many countries and are rapidly being replaced by high-yielding hybrid wheats.Rice, a staple food more than half the world’s population is a native of India is known to exist in 100,000 varieties. Of the 8,000 or so varieties cultivated, popular varieties include the long grained indica, aromatic basmati, and a reddish variety called rosematta. The basmati variety is aged from six months to more than a year to enhance its flavor. It has become almost synonymous with Indian cuisine in the Western world.Of the various regional varieties of rice unique to each region of India, only a few are available in the marketplace today. Traditional Indian grain-based recipes are poised for convenient and instant whole grain snacks and side dishes - perfect for 2005, declared by many brand marketers as the "year of the whole grain."Plain, boiled rice is the dietary staple of the coastal regions and the South. Whole grain or partially refined rice is processed in various ways and transformed into more portable forms that are then readily reconstituted to form quick-cooking meals. Rice is puffed by drying the fresh grain and roasting over a hot fire into moori, or pressed between hot rolls to form poha - which are typically eaten as a breakfast dish with sugar or raw sugar called jaggery or as a snack called bhelpuri mixed with spices and vegetables.In the South, several popular breads and pancakes such as dosas, idlis, appams, and uthappams are made from lightly fermented batter of ground rice and various legumes and eaten as part of breakfast or as a light snack the Indians called tiffin. Rice is also the basis of pudding-like desserts consumed universally across the sub-continent.Wheat, the principal grain in the North, is consumed largely as whole grain flour or as atta - whole meal flour without bran but with more fiber than refined flour. Indian breads are largely flat breads and may be unleavened, leavened with yeast, semi-leavened with yogurt or buttermilk and may be cooked in a skillet with or without fat, baked on the wall of tandoor or deep fried.Some breads, such as chapati, roti, or phulka, are made from simple flour and water dough, dry-roasted in a skillet and held with tongs over an open flame to rapidly puff into a round ball which quickly deflates and flattens. As a rule, breads are made fresh for every meal.A popular breakfast in the South is a savory polenta-like porridge made from coarse cracked wheat or its finer and faster-cooking cousin, semolina, and often containing vegetables and seasoned with fresh herbs and chilies.Another technique in Indian cuisine is the practice of dry-roasting a mixture of whole spices and grinding them just when needed for a burst of flavor. It is also common to boil whole spices in water to make an aromatic stock called yakhni in which rice is cooked to make flavorful pongal, biryani and pulaos (pilafs) without giving up their light color to darker colored spices.Indian cuisine is reaching all areas of food purveyance, in all price ranges. While upscale Indian restaurants and cheap-and-cheerful cafes draw adventuresome trendsetters, retailers have begun to offer simpler fare to tempt and acclimatize the palates of the more timid consumers. Many of these are built around the cereal grains that form the staple of the average Indian meal.

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