Finger millet for food and nutrient security | Sunday Observer

Finger millet for food and nutrient security

8 May, 2022

Commonly known as Kurakkan or Kurahan (Kezhvaraku in Tamil) finger millet is one of the main and oldest crops that had been traditionally grown in Sri Lanka at large. The staple grain has been able to assure food and nutrient security for Sri Lankans for many centuries while contributing to improving their health. However, with urbanisation, and societal transformation that had been taking place in the country for the past decades, consumption of food made of refined wheat flour increased while the popularity of many traditional and healthy cuisines saw a decline. Among them was a range of foods prepared with milled finger millet such as Kurakkan Thapala, Roti, and Pittu which had once been staples of Sri Lankans.

During World War II, when the production of rice could not fulfill the food requirement in the country, the British imported rice as well as wheat flour. Nevertheless, during that time the consumption of foods made of wheat flour such as bread was limited to the wealthy. Villagers, however, still depended on rice as well as other wild foods such as yams, jackfruit, and millets. Millets could successfully replace rice in fighting hunger as well as fulfilling the nutrient requirements.

With the introduction of the open economy, imported food became abundant in the country. Wheat flour became readily available and there was a gradual decline in the cultivation of staple crops. Wheat flour is known as all-purpose flour and its convenience in preparing a vast array of food increased its popularity.

Food shortage

Financial meltdown is one of the key causes of food crises in the world. Soaring food prices and shortage of food can worsen food circumstances in a country. It should be noted that sufficient warnings have been issued to the public through the media of a possible food shortage in the country.

Sri Lanka, which in the past had been a nation of food self-sufficiency, is still in a position to solve the food crisis successfully if preparations are undertaken sufficiently early. While resorting to home gardening to fulfill the individual food requirements, mass production of staples is vital. Cultivation of rice has not been feasible due to the recent fertiliser crisis in the country. It is conspicuous that the agriculture and food production sectors suffered a great loss due to the latter issue.

If Sri Lanka reverts to producing staple foods, that will help retain forex in the country as a large portion of it is spent on the import of food. Wheat is not cultivated in Sri Lanka but the consumption of food made of wheat flour is high in the country. This too draws a large portion of forex out of the country. A transformation of the dietary patterns of people during a crisis situation is urgently required to happen. Switching the dietary habits from unhealthy wheat flour-based foods to healthy finger millet or rice-based food is wise.

In the past, the inhabitants of this nation had been responsible for the production of food for their own consumption. Dependency on food was minimal albeit, the mutual support was common during the cultivation as well as harvesting of staple crops such as rice and Kurakkan.

Kurakkan was mostly cultivated in Chenas as a staple crop in the past. There is restricted cultivation and consumption of finger millet in Sri Lanka at present. Although small-scale finger millet cultivation is still happening in the country, the largest portion of the finger millet market is held by the imported finger millet. India is the largest finger millet exporter to Sri Lanka. It is high time that Sri Lanka resumes the cultivation and consumption of finger millet to successfully address any food shortages that would manifest in near future due to the ongoing economic, political, and social turmoil.

Identifying staple crops that require minimal human intervention with a short cultivation duration is essential as a prompt solution to the forthcoming food shortage.

Kurakkan which is scientifically known as Eleusine coracana can be cultivated under adverse soil and climatic conditions. It is a rain-fed crop that also requires no fertiliser. Like other millets, Kurakkan is also pest and disease-resistant. Unlike rice and other staple cereals, Kurakkan can survive in hardy and drought conditions and gives a high yield in a short time. Hence, Kurakkan can be cultivated in dry and arid areas where the cultivation of other crops is not easy. Kurakkan is grown in Anuradapura, Moneragala, Hambantoda, Kegalle, Ratnapura, Nuwara Eliya, Matale, Ampara, Badulla, and Jaffna districts in Sri Lanka. Kurakkan has an extended shelf life up to several years which does not reduce the quality of the grains. (Department of Agriculture, Sri Lanka)

As per finger millet farmers in the Moneragala District, the only issue they face in the cultivation process of Kurakkan is that the crop is damaged by wild animals such as monkeys, elephants, and birds. As per the farmers, Kurakkan is a profitable crop apart from little toil in protecting the crop from animals.

Culinary uses

Kurakkan is a highly nutritious and filling food. Kurakkan Thalapa was one of the main staples of Sri Lankans. To prepare foods with Kurakkan the grains have to be milled. In the past, people of this country used stone-made apparatus known as Kurahan Gala to hand-mill Kurakkan.

Using Kurahan Gala, a fine powder of finger millet can be manually obtained. Kurakkan Thalapa is prepared by cooking Kurakkan flour in hot water until a rough paste is formed. They are then shaped into large-sized balls and eaten with a thick curry known as Anama. Wew Malu Anama (inland fish curry), Kollu Anama (Curried horse gram) Mun Ata Anama (curried green gram) are some of the popular nutrient-dense accompaniments to Kurakkan Thalapa which is a filling dish.

People in remote areas in Sri Lanka still prefer eating Kurakkan Thalapa as it provides energy to toil and does not make one feel hungry for extended hours.

Apart from Kurakkan Thalapa, Kurakkan roti, and Kurakkan Pittu are other staples of Sri Lankans. Although Kurakkan bread is not a traditional food in Sri Lanka, they are available in supermarkets and are a popular substitute for refined-flour bread.

Kurakkan Helapa is a popular sweet dish in Sri Lanka. Kurakkan porridge is a popular food drink among those who are obsessed with shedding extra body fat.

Health benefits

Kurakkan is a highly nutritious and healthy staple. Finger millet is high in dietary fiber. As per studies, the non-starchy polysaccharides in finger millet help increase faecal bulk to relieve constipation while lowering blood lipids. Kurakkan has a low glycemic index and is gluten-free.

Apart from dietary fibre, finger millet contains carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids. This grain is rich in calcium too. Hence, the consumption of this cereal assures bone health. Kurakkan also contains anti-oxidants.

Epidemiological studies have shown that whole grain cereals including finger millet can protect against cardiovascular diseases such as diabetes as well as gastrointestinal cancers. Sri Lankan ethnomedical practitioners recommend Kurakkan to be regularly consumed for those with diabetes. The polyphenols in finger millet are found to be enzyme inhibitory and anti-cataractogenic.

Diabetes and obesity have become serious health issues in the world at present and proper eating can help mitigate such conditions. Unlike the consumption of food made of wheat flour, foods made of Kurakkan do not contribute to obesity. Substituting food made of wheat flour with those made of finger millet flour can be a wise decision to maintain sustainable health.

Dr. Naveen De Soysa is the Assistant Secretary of the Government Medical Officers’ Association and the Registrar in Community Medicine at the National Institute of Health Sciences. Panchamee Hewavissenti is a culinary researcher and recipe creator