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Natasha Gandhi is putting Ragi/Jowar in the Spotlight

By ANITA AIKARA
September 01, 2021 10:01 IST
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Cakes, brownies and cookies -- you name it and this MasterChef India Season 6 contestant can make it, and make it healthy.

IMAGE: Natasha Gandhi hopes to show people through her delicious desserts that there are no limits to what millets can offer.
Photographs: Kind courtesy Natasha Gandhi/Instagram and House of Millets/Instagram

Natasha Gandhi, founder of House of Millets, has been seeking culinary inspiration in millets to make healthy desserts.

Her all-time favourites are ragi and jowar, and she has been helping people pamper their sweet tooth without loading up on the calories.

A tireless creator of guilt-free cakes, she has ditched sugar for natural ingredients like jaggery, coconut sugar and dates.

Since COVID-19 hit India, she turned to social media to teach people how to bake healthy desserts, and once the lockdown was lifted, she has been delivering her delectable creations around Mumbai.

A contestant on MasterChef India Season 6, her passion for all things healthy was ignited when the doctor asked her father to control his sugar intake.

Scroll through her social media page and you'll be amazed by the variety Natasha can create with millets and healthy ingredients.

"Necessity is the mother of all inventions," she says. "I live in Mulund (a suburb in north east Mumbai), and in my area there was no one making healthy desserts.

"There were few people doing that in Mumbai, but they would charge a bomb and delivery would be a huge amount as well. That's when I decided to develop my recipes. I wanted to make it healthy yet affordable, so I used local ingredients like millets, jaggery and other things that weren't expensive."

In a chat with Anita Aikara/Rediff.com, Natasha speaks of her love for millets, creating healthy treats with millets and why she wants everyone to be able to afford her desserts.

You did your graduation in commerce and later moved to baking. How did the shift happen?

From a very young age I was passionate about cooking.

Everyone in my family are great cooks including my mom, dad, nani, masi, etc.

My mom is from Delhi, my bua (father's sister) is married into a Gujarati family, and I have been raised in Mumbai.

So, I have grown up eating Punjabi and Gujarati dishes.

Thanks to my aunt, who lives in Bandra (north west Mumbai), I have also experimented with international cuisines. 

When I'd go to Delhi to meet my nani, it would be about going back to my roots with authentic Punjabi food passed down through the generations.

My dadi has 2-3 of heirloom recipes and same is the case with my nani.

I love my dadi's Black Pepper Chicken, and my nani can take a simple vegetable like cauliflower or pumpkin and bhuno (cook) the masala in such a way that you won't miss eating non-vegetarian food.

She'd dry cauliflower on her balcony, which would smell horrible.

But later she would rehydrate it and cook it in her special masala.

When you eat it, you'll feel that you are having a non-vegetarian dish. She would do the same thing with jackfruit.

I am very fond of Gujarati food like undhiyo and sev tamatar sabji, kele ka raita.

While I was pursuing my chartered accountancy course, when the nights would get really tiring because of my studies, cooking would help relieve my stress.

To be honest, I did the course because I believed it is important to have basic knowledge of money while running a business.

I have grown up reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad. My uncle made me read the book at a young age.

He told me, 'Listen Natasha, tomorrow when you open your business, do not rely on any other person to handle your accounts and taxes. You should have some knowledge.'

That's one reason why I decided that taking up science or arts doesn't make sense.

So, I opted for commerce and did a CA course on the side.

When I was doing my CA articleship, I realised that I cannot work for other people.

I wanted to run my own business, and I knew whenever that happened, it had to be connected with food.

Who gave you your first cooking lessons?

I think that would have to be Nigella Lawson.

In my childhood, unlike other kids my age, I would watch TLC and Food Food.

I still remember watching chefs like Aditya Bal, Curtis Stone and Nigella Lawson cook.

I was a huge fan of Nigella's personality. I would go into the kitchen and pretend that I am her cooking.

Her chocolate mousse was the first dish I made.

I learnt to love what I do thanks to her.

I feel that if you cook with love and passion, the same reflects in your food.

If I am in a bad mood, if I am angry and I cook, the food doesn't taste the way it should taste.

But if I am really happy, everybody loves the food I make.

IMAGE: 'Not once have I hated my job, reason being it was never a job for me, it is something greater.'

How has the journey been post MasterChef India Season 6?

Post the show the love that I am still receiving has been overwhelming.

The response, love and opportunities I received is something I will always be grateful for.

When the season was over, within 15 days the lockdown was announced.

The season finale aired on March 1, 2020 and in less than a month the entire country was in lockdown.

AT that time I felt I should take things in a positive way.

I turned the situation around for myself as I realised that people sitting at home would turn to online channels for recipes.

So, every day on my Instagram page I'd put up basic, simple and quick recipes.

I also started taking online classes. If I could not go to meet people, I decided to virtually meet people.

Seeing what was the need of the hour helped me to shift my entire business model online.

Any major lessons or teachings from MasterChef India?

MasterChef India was a high-pressure competition and everyone had come to win.

We didn't know about the challenges beforehand. We would be called at 4 am and our make up would begin.

By the time we would get the challenge, 6-7 hours would have passed.

We were sleep deprived half of the time, but whenever the challenges would start we'd get an adrenaline rush.

Those challenging situations taught me how to take quick decisions and handle pressure situations.

How did you go about founding the House of Millets?

When I decided to start something of my own, I knew it had to be desserts.

I first went and learnt how to make unhealthy desserts and realised it takes 4-5 hours to make these desserts.

They need a lot of equipment, one needs a lot of space to store the baking equipment, and delivery is a hassle.

I decided not to do that because it is too much tension.

I did an assessment in the market and figured there was a need for healthy desserts.

I noticed that in my own house as well. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Our family doctor told my dad that he had to control his sugar.

In my area there was no one making healthy desserts.

There were few people doing it in Mumbai. They would charge a bomb and delivery would be a huge amount as well.

That's when I decided to develop my recipe.

I wanted to make it affordable so I used local ingredients like millets, jaggery and other things that weren't expensive.

The same dessert that you will find in a bakery in south Mumbai selling for ₹2,000/- and I sell it for ₹800/-.

I want healthy desserts to be more affordable.

Why should only rich people should be given access to healthy treats?

Middle-class people should be able to afford it as well.

I am not using fancy ingredients like quinoa flour and coconut sugar. I am using jaggery, millets, etc.

It took me 6-7 months to develop the recipes.

I needed to do several trials and finally the House of Millets was started in Feb 2019.

Around June-July 2018, I started my trials for my recipes, and six months later I was auditioning for MasterChef India. Everything happened pretty quickly.

IMAGE: Baked brownies from the House of Millets made using almond flour, raw cacao and sweetened using coconut sugar.

What kept you inspired during the lockdown?

For me, it is not only about selling healthy desserts.

It is also about empowering other people.

What I also do is that I conduct online classes where I teach my recipes.

I must have taught over 8,00-1000 people over 40 online classes during the lockdown.

All these people would message to update me about how they were branching out on their own. That was what kept me going.

Also, the messages I receive from customers thanking me for my cakes keeps me motivated.

Which millets do you love using?

Every millet has a different use and I love working with all millets.

In desserts, ragi and jowar are my go-to millets.

The reason being that they are more accessible and affordable.

If I had to pick one, then jowar would be my favourite as it is super-versatile and tastes very close to whole wheat flour.

How versatile are millets when it comes to cooking?

They are very versatile. The only difference between a whole wheat flour or maida and millets is that there is no gluten in the latter.

That is the reason why binding becomes a problem with millets, but you can use binding agents like flax or chia seeds, eggs, banana or curd.

Another trick is to use hot boiling water.

The locals in Maharashtra have been making jowar roti since ages and they add the flour to hot boiling water.

I have made dim sum and samosas with millet flour using this trick.

Upma, dosa and paniyaram can be made with millets, along with cupcakes, cookies, cakes, etc.

As it has an earthy taste, you need to know how to neutralise jowar atta with other ingredients.

One important thing that people need to understand is that you can't overdo millets.

It is not something you can consume for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

It is good enough if one meal of your day has millets, as they are very heavy and take more time to digest.

IMAGE: A behind-the-scenes pic of Natasha cooking for a shoot.

At home do you follow a millet-based diet?

Yes. For my lunch there will always be jowar or bajra roti. I avoid millets for dinner though.

According to you, what are the benefits of a millet-based diet?

If you are following a plant-based diet, you can include ragi as it is high in calcium.

Bajra is high in iron. All other millets have different properties.

In terms of immunity-building, millets have a lot of nutrients.

I suggest that people should not restrain themselves to one millet only. They should try all.

However, to get your body to absorb the millets, it is important that you soak it for a few hours.

The process is similar to what we do with our dals, rajma and chole. Soaking makes them easy to digest.

In the market you get sprouted millet flour, which is a good option.

If that is not available, you can use hot boiling water when cooking with millet flour.

How has House of Millets evolved during the pandemic?

We shut our operations during the first lockdown in the months of March, April and May.

But I took to the online model and used to conduct cooking classes.

Shifting the business model online during the lockdown helped reduce the impact of the pandemic.

Post the lockdown things were back on track.

People wanted to taste my healthy cakes and the orders started pouring in.

It took a pandemic for people to realise that their health is important and they need to keep their immunity in check.

IMAGE: Natasha's gluten-free tortillas. She used ragi in one and jowar in the other tortilla.

What advice would you give people who want to embrace a millet-based diet?

Take baby steps. Go slow, but be consistent.

Your taste for millets will develop over time.

Rushing into things may end up in you developing a hate relationship with millets. Avoid doing that.

Initially if you want to make a roti, add 50 per cent regular flour along with millet flour.

Gradually, keep increasing the quantity of millet flour.

If you're using quinoa or rice in any dish, you can try and substitute it with millets.

Foxtail and kodu are closet to the taste of rice. They go well with rajma or kadhi.

Whole jowar and bajra take a lot of time to cook and it can be pretty disheartening to make dishes with it for someone who is new to millets.

Once you are confident with millets, you can make it a larger part of your diet.

Any advice for aspiring bakers or entrepreneurs?

Do what you love. Don't be afraid to follow your passion and cook with your heart.

Let your food do the talking.

Don't copy what someone else is doing, as it won't take you a long way.

While following your passion, do an assessment of the market so that you don't work with a product that has no demand.

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ANITA AIKARA / Rediff.com