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Soulful Grains

Soulful Grains

Shalini Kala

Shalini Kala’s absorbing story about traditional method of procuring atta evokes the urgent need to preserve certain practices amid a culture that embraces everything ready-made. Among other things, her tale tells us to acknowledge the beauty of grains, so essential and so vital.

In the last century, before the advent of packaged flour, a common ritual among families residing in North Indian cities involved buying wheat, removing small stones and straw pieces, washing it, drying it, and finally having it ground in the local chakki. That is how one procured atta for the family. At each step of the process the enlightened consumer conducted quality checks to ensure the best result at the end. Right from choosing the wheat variety, to the number of washes, the degree of grain dryness, and the texture of the flour, standards were set by the wise, followed by the commoners, and were discussed and reviewed frequently at mohalla gatherings. Those from the wheat growing regions of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh held a special place as holders and disseminators of this ritual. They alone had the authority to suggest changes to the process and its standards. What would South Indian rice-eaters know about this? This is also the time when there were, largely speaking, two Indias – the North and the South.

Sometime during this period, factory-made bread entered the scene, instantly striking men and children with its glamour. Bread seemed to be a winner for its “white-man” origins. Smart moms, seizing the opportunity, started to replace rotis and paranthas with it, at least for breakfast. Interestingly, in many a households mum’s were seen depriving themselves of bread slices, saving them for their loved ones.

In retrospect, I think the reasons may have been sensibly different, because as far as I can remember, I never liked this bread, in fact I disliked it with all my might. I was too young to care about my mum’s convenience who had her hands full with one adult, three kids, and a teaching job. At some point in time she gave up on trying to make me eat bread for breakfast, dad and siblings had no problems at all with bread, it was just me who had to make her life a little more difficult than it already was. Life came back a full circle –  my utter aversion for bread continued for a long time and became a source of embarrassment and inconvenience for me once I started to travel for work frequently.  But I digress, back to my childhood.

Ghee-soaked paranthas were my favourite for breakfast. Apart from wheat flour rotis, pooris and paranthas, what I really liked were koda(madua or Ragi) rotis. This mountain koda flour was, especially and with great difficulty, sourced during each summer trip to be consumed during the winter. My affinity to this flour both intrigued and delighted my mum no end -robust in flavour, dense in texture and extremely nutritious, in the last century it was considered fit for the blue-collared field plough-hands only. It was a no-no for any one with refined tastes. Since, my mum was very aware of its nutritional benefits she encouraged all her kids to eat it. Koda rotis, for cold winter morning breakfast with a simply done spinach stir-fry in mustard oil, full red chillies, jakhya and a little salt or for lunch with sweet pumpkin in fenugreek seeds and fennel powder along with arhar dal, completed these meals like none other and took one where you wanted nothing else! I waited for winter all year.

Later in life on my work trips I also discovered my love for bajra, jowar and soyabean flours – these were not common in our home. The koda experience had taught me well to appreciate the flavour, aroma and texture of different grains. I had even started to become more discerning about wheat flour. Was it Sona, Sharbati or Sihore? Was it from MP, Punjab, or Haryana? Was it ground very fine? Was it unpolished? I had questions galore for my atta chakki owner and hosts. But these were just basics for the Haryana family I married into where early in this century flour was still being procured in the traditional manner! As convention demanded, the big city girl (yours truly) was made aware of her lack of superior nutrition knowledge – soyabean, chana, and bajra flours were mixed with atta in pre-decided measures and as per the changing seasons to make rotis. They did not know.

As I displayed my wide-eyed appreciation, the ace up my sleeve wriggled out revealing itself fully as it lay face-up. Koda was totally new to them, they hadn’t even heard of it. Speechlessness reigned, for some time at least, among the in-laws as rotis were served with a dollop of ghee and gur along with leafy greens. Koda earned me the respect that no new bride can expect automatically; my place in the foodie household was set, several notches higher than others. The rather soft voices of protest were smothered successfully by another card – there were actually two aces. Soyabean needs to be roasted at high heat before being ground into flour to neutralize its trypsin-inhibitor characteristic, harmful to humans. This was an entirely new piece of information for the in-laws. None could shake my throne now!

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S managed to find a chakki in every neighbourhood that we have resided and has ensured that our wheat flour is top quality even if he reluctantly allows the chakki staff to have the wheat washed, dried and cleaned on their own. No big-brand packaged flour for us. He even found a chakki two thousand kilometres south of the capital city where we moved a few years ago. In these more ambient environs next to the coast, we have started to consume rotis with koda, bajra, chana all year round. No waiting for winters anymore – there are really no winters here. With a 50-50 mix of any of the millet and wheat flour, we enjoy the soulful flavours of these grains in rotis each day. Today was the sweet and strong bajra.


Feautured photograph by Disiana Caballero

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