One of the most cherished parts of the street food scene in Mumbai are the hole-in-the-wall shops selling chikkis. Every neighbourhood in the city will have a chikkiwala who makes barks, bars and laddoos with healthy ingredients like peanuts, lentils, sesame, dried fruits, and a wonder ingredient called rajgira. Mainly free of sugar, these snackables are made out of jaggery and are a good pick-me-up (if eaten in moderation) for when the 4pm hunger pang comes calling. The rajgira or amaranth chikki, especially, remains a hot seller for most of these vendors.
Tiny like quinoa, rajgira seeds are roasted on a hot pan until they pop and mixed with molten jaggery to obtain chikkis that are crunchy, sweet and delicious, and also were my first brush with this nutrition-loaded ingredient.
Rajgira is essentially known for its high protein value, about 100 grams of uncooked rajgira has 14 grams of protein. It needs to be looked at “as a pseudo-cereal that is high in potassium and magnesium and can help cut back retention,” says clinical and sport nutrition expert Raksha G Lulla from Locavore Consulting.
Rajgira is a lesser-known gem that hides in kitchens of various communities across India, yet is not a staple like wheat or rice and isn’t replenished as often. However, off late, due to larger awareness about the benefits and high nutritional value of Indian superfoods like turmeric, ginger powder or matta rice, rajgira too has joined the bandwagon.
Traditionally, rajgira has been used to make everything from a khichdi, porridge, parathas, laddoos, dosa and patties. It’s flour is especially popular during Hindu fasts and can be rolled into a khandvi, panki, puris and muthias by the Gujarati community of India, and an upwas-style thalipeeth, puran poli, bhakarwadi and parathas for the Maharashtrians. While fasting, both these communities abstain from grains like wheat and rice, and therefore certain alternate flours and ingredients like buckwheat, singada (water chestnut) and rajgira are permissible and turned into everything from hearty bowls to chaats.
“Rajgira is an important fasting food, eaten on a day you need prolonged and slow-sustained release of energy to accomplish complicated traditional rituals while you go the whole day mostly on milk, nuts, fruit as the other accompaniments,” says Lulla. She says it also takes really long to get digested (primary reason why kuttu, singada and sabudana along with other millets are chosen on fasting days) and provides sustained energy need versus wheat and rice.
Pairing it correctly also makes a difference. Aloo ki sabji brings out the best in rajgira. “Salt, pepper and cumin powder can be added to the dough to further enhance taste and nutrients. Vitamin C from the potato enhances the iron absorption from rajgira. It is also eaten with bhee (lotus stem) which is high in zinc, vitamin A and B6 and helps in improving mood and builds immunity,” she adds.
Though its entwined with religious rituals and traditional cooking in India, amaranth’s roots are in Mexico, where it was a staple food of the Aztecs. And even today, use it in stews and make a candy called alegría which looks exactly like a rajgira chikki, complete with amaranth seeds, honey (instead of jaggery) and dried fruits.
While these are all regional methods of eating rajgira, its flour, seeds and even leaves are gaining popularity among urban chefs in India. At Gouri’s Goodies, it is mixed with other ingredients like millets, apricots, and chia seeds to make the ideal morning breakfast cereal, while Eat A Whey does a mix with nuts, pumpkin, watermelon, sunflower and chia seeds, cinnamon, and more. Amaranth flour also has a fan-following of its own with bakers dabbling with healthy ingredients like Skinny Bakes and their healthy blueberry crumble muffins made with amaranth flour, homemade apple sauce and fresh blueberries.
“The best time to eat amaranth is obviously fasting days and long travels where you feel the need to constantly keep snacking or on a day when you have a hectic schedule,” says Lulla. She agrees with me when I share how it also works excellently as a pre-workout bar because of its natural protein content and will provide sustained energy versus a fake sugar high.
Besides seeds and flour, you can also eat amaranth leaves that are loaded with amino acids and minerals like iron. “Cosmetic benefits include reversing hair thinning and boosting hair follicle health,” she is quick to add. “I like its flour because it helps me make gluten-free pasta. I’ll roll it thinly and fill it with ricotta and parmesan and in the past, I have turned its leaves into a stuffing along with other leaves like mustard leaves, spinach, and chard to make stuffed pastas like pansotti and ravioli,” says Apeksha Agarwal from Cacio e Pepe, a homemade pasta delivery kitchen in Mumbai. At home, stir into a warm salad with lots of spicy sauce and honey or chop it finely and make a traditional winter saag. Similarly, instead of turning it into a plain chikki, rajgira grains can be mixed with superfoods like moringa flour, raw cacao, flax seeds, oats, dried fruits and eaten as a trail mix, turned into bliss balls or blended into a smoothie for texture.
Whatever your rajira fix might be, the best reason to appreciate this seed is because of how easily available it is, how nutritious it is and its versatility that allows it to be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner alike.