Romancing the millet: Chef Balaji of Park Hyatt Chennai elevates local foodgrains to true fine dining
You'd never expect millets to be so much fun — what with strains and varieties with names such as foxtail, barnyard and pearl, all seemingly straight out of a Disney fairytale, if not some enchanted land from an Enid Blyton fantasy.
For Chef Balaji Natarajan at The Dining Room, the in-house restaurant at Park Hyatt Chennai, that retains some charm of a colonial outpost, the prospect of working with millets wasn’t just familiar and comforting, it was exciting and promised a great deal of fun.
And, the fun elements really make his festive ‘Millets and More Menu’ stand-out from all the other offerings this season — so much that we recommend it be included as a part of the main menu.
But before we get all picky and choosy about our food, keeping every concern of health and calorie consciousness intact, we had to get a few lessons on the subject from Chef Balaji himself, who sat us down with a platter of foodgrains, to explain the difference in consistency, texture and flavour of each strand, while also letting us know what they’re called in Tamil and Hindi, with a smattering of charming Bengali tossed in (see box).
A bunch of sensory bells
With the local familiarisation complete, it was time to dine like a dignitary, and we did tuck in our serviette, and hold our forks raised in eager anticipation.
First up was a Kodo Millet Bisque, which dispelled any notion we might’ve had about millets being tasteless and boring, like birdseed.
Naturally gluten-free and vegan as they are, the millets truly get transformed in the hands of Chef Balaji.
Warm, delicately laced with micro-herbs, and marked by delightful spots of pesto and basil oil, the creamy bisque is served with toasted grain bread and crispy quinoa, making for a wholesome start to the meal.
One of the great things about millet dishes is that they’re light on the tummy, even as the grain gives you more energy than anything else, and is rarely filling or weighty to leave you with that bags-of-concrete feeling you get after gorging on too much rice.
The Barnyard Millet Tabbouleh and the Quinoa and Avocado Salad are great testaments to back this claim.
In the tabbouleh, the fun element is of sparkling pomegranate seeds, while the second option is a layered work of sculptural cuisine, with a refreshing and innovative mix of avocado, oranges and fennel tossed in for good measure.
At the back of the mouth, the salad rings a bunch of sensory bells — sour, sweet, citrusy, all at the same time, and all of it so cleverly put together, you’re sure to head back for another serving.
Salmon, risotto & blondies
Among the mains, the standout dishes include the Millet Pesto Salmon — a gorgeous oven-roasted millet-crusted cut of fish, served with a rustic herbed pumpkin purée.
The Pearl Millet Biryani with Black Chickpeas is a great pick and a revelation as a biryani you’ve never tasted before.
But our top pick has to be the Creamy Great Millet Risotto — that’s right, an Italian-style risotto, as close to any risotto out there, except, made with Sorghum millet.
By the time we reached our dessert, a ‘ragi creamaux’ called Almond Chocolate Millet Blondies, all we knew is that we’d come to fall in love with millets and that we need to brush up on our cross-cultural language exchange programmes very soon.
What’s in a name?
A quick quide to millets:
In English: Tamil/Hindi/Bengali
• Foxtail millet: thenai/kakum/kaon.
• Barnyard millet: kuthiraivali/sanwa/shyama.
• Kodo millet: varagu/kodon/kodo.
• Little millet: saamai/kutki/sama.
• Finger millet: keppai/ragi/marwa.
• Proso millet: pani varagu/chena/cheena.
Meal for two INR 3,000 + taxes.
— Jaideep Sen