Food satiates the mind, body and spirit. Food has medicinal properties and if we reflect on ancient wisdom then the food we eat defines our health status. You don’t believe this then welcome to Neeru Gulati’s kitchen. It is a biochemist’s lab where a lot of scientific learning has been put to practical use to decode health. Simplicity is the bedrock of Neeru’s life and she shares her most profound learnings through cooking and baking workshops. She shares her learnings through many platforms and if you are lucky to be in Hyderabad then she will give you a taste of her delectable cakes, breads and cookies that spell health as well as taste. White Print spoke to Neeru Gulati about her millet – journey as she churns out easy recipes and conducts workshops to educate people all about the inexpensive ways to cook and at healthy.
WP: Why should millets be used? How do you help others become aware about the benefits of cooking and baking with millets?
NG: Millets are fiber and nutrient rich grains. They are gluten free and environment friendly. The crop cycles are very small and very little water is needed for the cultivation. When I started using millets I didn’t know some of these facts. I used them as I knew they are healthier as compared to wheat and rice. I started with cookies. Now I offer a three week course in millets cooking and baking.
This is an intensive course that helps health conscious people to understand all aspects of millet cooking/baking. We cook regular millet meals. We bake cookies, cakes , crackers, tarts and breads with millets. We have a lot of scope in millet baking. Millet flours give a number of options. Everyday you can use a different millet flour. And such diversity is good for our gut.
WP: What made you so passionate about cooking and baking after studying biochemistry?
NG: I like to eat/cook healthy. Being a biochemist helps here as food is divided into carbs, proteins and fats. I know my ingredients better. I studied biochemistry however didn’t pursue a career as my husband is in a transferable job. I took up cooking voluntarily, the science I knew didn’t leave me. I applied biochemistry to decode a healthy lifestyle first for my family and then decided to share the same learnings through workshops. This is who I am. I invest all I have in whatever I do. Be it teaching my baking skills to people or cooking a simple lunch for my family.
I try to do it to the best of my capabilities. As I was cooking I wanted to be the best cook. So the kitchen became my lab and I applied the science on food.
Baking was picked up much later. We were in Hanoi. I was away from the extended family. I had a lot of time in hand. Also since our daughter was in grade 3 by then and was interested in cakes, cookies and breads I wanted to bake healthy for her. Fortunately I found a very small oven in the furnished apartment we were staying in. I started with a whole wheat chocolate cake which didn’t rise at all. Then tried cookies and bread. I failed initially as even on google not many whole wheat recipes were there. Failures don’t dissuade me. Not even now. Once I set my mind on something I don’t stop until I achieve it.
WP: What does health mean to you? Why did you take the tougher road to healthy baking?
NG: For me health is a state of being happy with yourself and with your surroundings. I think
you should be able to eat what you like and do what interests you. This is something most
important if you want to stay healthy.
As good health isn’t dependent on just the food you eat everyday. It’s a holistic thing. It includes the work you do, people you meet, literature/books you read. Everything you take in impacts your health.
I didn’t plan to take up anything. It just happened. When I was cooking/eating healthy, baking healthy came naturally. Eating good food with healthy ingredients should be a habit. We don’t like to have a maida pizza or say a packaged cookie. It doesn’t feel good. It feels like a sinful act.
WP: You make everything sound easy. How did you evolve as a baker with easy tips and simpler methods as compared to many who feel that baking is technical and not everybody can bake?
NG: I am an easy going person who loves simple things. I believe that something you do every day should be easy. Who loves to solve difficult problems every day. We all love simple things and like to repeat them.
Science helped me in simplifying baking. First, I use the regular ingredients that are available at home. No special flours are needed for my bakes. Even if my recipes need some exotic things I try to find the simple replacements. As I know the basic nature of the ingredients, it’s easier to find replacements. I rarely watch youtube videos for recipes or search recipes on the internet.
This is something which comes naturally due to scientific temperament. I would also like to add that good food is something we enjoy as a family. All my experimental food is loved at home. The appreciation I get keeps me motivated to experiment more and cook/ bake better.
WP: Do you mean to say that healthy cooking or baking is all about the ingredients that we use? Can you explain further?
NG: Yes, healthy cooking/baking is definitely all about the choice of ingredients. I skip the unwanted ingredients like improvers, additives or refined flour or refined sugar all together. Baking has been synonymous with unhealthy ingredients like a lot of maida, white sugar or say a lot of butter. If you don’t add these, how can your bakes be unhealthy?
WP: What makes you share all your tips and tricks in your workshops?
NG: When I started I had no idea that I would ever be baking commercially or teaching people healthy baking. I started as I wanted to serve healthy food. I learned by trial and error. Best part of my work is I loved it all through. All the good bakes and all the not-so-good bakes taught me something. As I learned all by myself, I know it deeply. I know the problems that a beginner faces.
And since I am looked up to, I share what I know. Feels good when I am treated as an expert in my field. I think all that hard work I did is paying off.
WP: How do you plan your meals?
NG: We plan in advance. My husband takes an active interest in everything I do. From shopping for groceries to vegetable chopping he is always there. We decide a day before the menu for the next day. This makes everything easy. As we keep moving, outside food is very different at different places. Sometimes it’s too spicy and at some places it’s too bland. We mostly rely on home cooked food. My husband and daughter carry their lunch boxes religiously.
WP: What is sourdough baking? How is it different from normal bread baking?
NG: Before I write about sourdough I would like to share my passion for baking breads. I love baking bread, be it yeasted bread or sourdough bread. We never buy packaged cakes, cookies or breads. Cookies and breads are a staple at home.
In sourdough bread we use wild/natural yeast. We first capture it in a culture of water and flour. This wild yeast culture is called a starter. In sourdough breads instead of commercial yeast this culture of wild yeast is used. Sourdough bread uses just four ingredients: flour, water ,starter and salt. These are gut friendly/probiotic. They add good bacteria in your gut.
WP: Share a few tips that can help a beginner plan a healthy meal?
NG: Always plan ahead. Design a menu for the entire week.
Keep the ingredients ready. You can buy your ingredients once/twice a week and refrigerate them.
Keep peeled garlic and ginger in airtight containers to save time. If you like homemade chapatis with wheat flour or millets then make the dough the previous night. You can make dosa/idli batter in advance.
Bake your cookies on the weekend. They will come handy as snacks. You can plan and bake a loaf too in advance and have a healthy sandwich for breakfast. Chopping vegetables and storing them in glass bottles in the refrigerator helps to cook faster later. For salads also you can follow the same thing.
WP: You have clients who buy bread from you. What are their preferences?
NG: These days people like to have cookies, cakes and bread with millets. Some also prefer sourdough breads. However I think people should try to know the ingredients that make their bakes. Instead of following a trend follow what you like and what helps your body to work better.
WP: 2023 is the year of millets. How do you disseminate your learning?
NG: I have been conducting free awareness workshops to educate people about the goodness of millets and that health is our true wealth.
Since millets are fibre rich and are very different from our regular grains like wheat and rice, they confuse people. If millets are not consumed in the right way, they can create digestive problems. So I talk about the correct way of using millets and my cooking and baking workshops are there for people who usually interact with me on social media and then register to learn. I share the recordings of these online workshops with the participants for future reference and we experiment and communicate on the whatsapp group.
I have participated in charity bake sales for Good Universe, an organisation which provides sanitary pads to women. And one more group which was working for covid relief. Have done a charity workshop for LECIN and for Minakshi Yadav who stays with life coach Chitra Jha.
Also on my social media pages I share millet recipes to encourage the use of millets in everyday food. Millets have a lot of scope. You need to give yourself some time to adapt to this new taste. Start eating millets gradually and see how they help cure lifestyle diseases.
WP: What does a baked meal look like in your house?
NG: A baked meal that’s loved by all of us consists of whole wheat or millet garlic bread with soup and some oven roasted vegetables or some stuffed whole wheat/millet kulchas with curd and mildly spicy chana pindi. We love our stuffed buns or pull apart breads equally.
WP: Do you have easy recipes for our readers who would like to start their journey with baking and cooking with millets?
NG: Jowar masala roti
Makes 4 rotis
Jowar Flour 1 cup
Onion 1 chopped
Green Chillies 3
Ginger one inch piece
Coriander leaves 2 tbsp
Turmeric Powder 1⁄2 tea spoon
Salt 1 tea spoon
Ajwain 1⁄2 tea spoon
Roasted Jeera Powder 1⁄2 tea spoon
Water 3⁄4 cup
In a bowl add all the above ingredients except water, mix well and keep.
Heat water in a pan and soon as it boils, switch off. Slowly mix hot water with the flour mixture with the help of a spatula and quickly gather into one ball. Keep adding water gradually until the dough comes together.
Keep it aside for 15 minutes.
Make rotis on a hot girdle. Apply ghee.
Finger millet crackers
3/4 cup wheat flour
1/2 cup ragi/ finger millet flour
3 tbsp butter/ oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp carom seeds
1/4 tsp red chilli powder
Mix wheat flour, ragi flour and all spices.
Add butter/ oil. Rub it with flour using your hands.
Use water to make the dough.
Dough should be tight.
Rest it for 1/2 an hour.
Preheat the oven at 170 C for 10 minutes
Roll the dough between two layers of parchment paper.
Cut the crackers using a cookie cutter.
Bake for 12-15 minutes
Cool and store in airtight container.
White Print wishes Neeru Gulati the very best in all her endeavours. Follow @neerubakes and @themilletlover on instagram to know all about millets. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org to begin your health journey with millets.