MasterChef contestant Natasha Gandhi’s House of Millets adopts a “millets-only” approach with no refined sugar, no dairy and no flour — but you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
Brownies — the humble and regular go-to dessert for many. But at House of Millets, it’s not just a regular brownie. This one’s made of millets, avocado oil and an array of other healthy ingredients. I bite into the vegan square I’ve received, curious about what this gastronomical experience holds for me. The brownie doesn’t disappoint as it crumbles in my mouth. It is gooey, moist and has that crinkled top layer with hints of edible gold and chocolate chips that lend a good bite. Rich, indulgent and chocolatey, I can hardly believe this piece of goodness is flour free and sans refined sugar! “That brownie recipe took me two years to develop,” Natasha Gandhi informs me. To me, it’s worth the wait. Now, I can’t wait to tuck into the six different cupcakes sitting pretty in a box before my eyes.
For years now, the art of baking has often involved the undisputed use of refined flour, sugar and eggs. While alternatives have recently begun to emerge in the market, there is a widespread mindset that these “compromised” desserts tend to disappoint in taste. Hence, the question remains — why would anyone indulge in desserts that do not feel like indulgence? Natasha’s House of Millets is here to change that narrative.
The birth of House of Millets
House of Millets located in Mulund West, offers a variety of millet-based, vegan and healthy baked goods. The menu comprises different types of cakes such as burst cakes, pull me up cakes and tea cakes, while also offering brownies, flavoured cupcakes and muffins. With health as the presiding theme, they swap butter for cold-pressed oils and nut butters. Millets such as nachni, bajra, and jowar are used to substitute refined flour. Refined sugar is replaced with the goodness of jaggery powder, dates and fruit purées. Currently, House of Millets delivers their delectable treats across Mumbai.
Natasha Gandhi, owner and founder of House of Millets, started this venture in January 2019. “I was studying for my CA finals in 2018, when I realised that this was not what I wanted to do. I often spent my study time cooking and experimenting in the kitchen. That’s when I realised my interest in cooking and House of Millets was born. My father was also advised to cut down on his sugar intake and a few other close relatives of mine were diagnosed with diabetes. So, in a way, necessity became the mother of invention for me, as my family needed healthier options,” Natasha reveals.
A bit of research made her realise the dearth of healthy eateries across the city, especially for desserts. “Back then, I had no option but to order from a Bandra bakery, with the added expenditure of expensive delivery. Hence, I myself felt the need to change the situation,” she says. For Natasha, her cultural roots also ignited the chef in her in many ways. “Coming from a Punjabi family, I have been surrounded with good cooks my whole life, be it my parents or grandparents — but my sister is the exception here!” she informs me lightheartedly.
The MasterChef India experience
A business launch and couple of culinary work experiences later, Natasha received a call from the MasterChef India team, asking her if she would like to audition for the show. “I thought there was no harm in trying, but I had no idea that I would actually get selected!” Contrary to what we see on screen, the MasterChef India audition process is rigorous with around 7-8 rounds that contestants need to clear. “When I went for the interview, I met people there who were trying since 5-6 years. That’s when I realised how much people wanted to be on this show. I happened to be lucky to receive a call from them, which I think is because of House of Millets. Once I kept clearing the rounds, I realised that perhaps the channel liked my category of healthy food, which only 2-3 other people were also catering to.”
Natasha herself had been a fan of culinary entertainment since her childhood days. “While my friends would watch Disney shows or Cartoon Network, I would be watching Nigella Lawson on television. I also loved watching Indian cooking shows such as Chakh Le India, Chef Vicky Ratnani’s Vicky goes Veg, Sanjeev Kapoor’s shows, Ranveer Brar’s shows, etc,” she reveals. Her first ever dish was attempting to replicate Nigella Lawson’s lava cake and chocolate mousse. Natasha was left pleasantly surprised by the results, which only renewed her self confidence, and she hasn’t looked back since.
Developing the desserts
Natasha develops her own recipes for each dessert at House of Millets. Understandably, the process is tedious and often takes 5-6 months. However, she was adamant on one aspect — the use of local ingredients as much as possible, as these were not only readily available, but also easy on the pocket. “Instead of monkfruit and coconut sugar, in India, we luckily have the option of using jaggery,” she reasons.
Natasha develops recipes for House of Millets using a scientific approach of trial and error. “I look at the recipe of a normal, unhealthy cake with refined flour, sugar, butter and egg. Then, I try to replace each ingredient with a healthy alternative. For flour, I try to develop a combination of millet flours which will best complement my dessert. Experience has shown me that nachni complements chocolate very well. So, I tend to use it in a lot of my cakes. On the other hand, bajra flour is very dense. Hence, I refrain from using it in my chocolate cakes,” she says. Apart from this, she uses amaranth, buckwheat and oats too. “With millets, you’ve actually got nine different types of flours to choose from, versus the regular refined flour in conventional baking,” she reveals.
Once the best suited ingredients have been finalised, Natasha focuses on the ratio and combination of each ingredient that must be used. This is the tricky part and the step which involves multiple rounds of trial and error. “I’ve had too many failed recipes! But with each attempt, I improve and get better before ultimately getting it right.”
In the box of cupcakes I’ve opted for, a couple of flavours particularly impress. The orange chocolate cupcake is refreshing with the zing of orange zest that sings through the layers of the gluten-free cupcake. The mango cupcake topped with a swirl of mango rose, is light and easily the flavour of the season. I return to the familiar hazelnut crunch perhaps the most, while the slightly daring tart raspberry lemon cupcake tempts me every now and then for yet another bite. For me, Natasha’s method of developing recipes works just fine.
You are what you (do not) eat
“It took a pandemic for us to realise that health is wealth,” says Natasha. Indeed, 2020 did put the spotlight on health and for many, it triggered a change in lifestyle. Natasha believes that millets can be the best solution for many ailments as they offer numerous benefits. “I strongly recommend the use of cold-pressed oils instead of refined oil. Currently, I’m using a lot of avocado oil in my desserts. It does not even have an aftertaste and offers a good fat content. This means that it makes my desserts moist even without the use of egg. You can also opt to make your own nut butter at home like almond butter and hazelnut butter. In case you are allergic to nuts, you can always use sunflower seeds, hemp seeds or lemon seeds to make butter,” she says.
For sweeteners, Natasha chooses natural sources of sugar as much as possible. “Dates, jaggery, coconut sugar and sweet from fruits such as bananas and apple purées work wonders for me. For zero-calorie sweetness, you can look at stevia, erythritol and monkfruit. However, some of these are expensive or offer an aftertaste. In such cases, apple purée works best, which is what I use, as I want my customers to also enjoy the taste!”
Natasha uses water instead of milk in her recipes, as she claims her recipes are designed to exclude the use of milk and butter altogether. “You might have to increase the fibre content a bit if you use water, and then you’re sorted.” These invaluable tips are the result of months of trial and error, her MasterChef India experience, lots of reading and relentless online research.
How to switch to a millet-based diet
When it comes to millets, Natasha offers words of advice on how to incorporate it into your diet. “Firstly, do not blindly follow recipes from abroad online, as the millets they consume are different from Indian millets. In fact, even in India, we have different types of local millets. Uttarakhand’s millets are different from Karnataka’s. One may be good for dosa, the other for bread.”
Secondly, Natasha recommends taking baby steps towards adopting a millet-based diet. “Millets are heavier and take a while to digest. Hence, incorporate it in your breakfast or lunch, instead of a late dinner. I typically eat two regular rotis and one millet roti, since it is heavy.”
She also stresses on the type of millet being used, as each one offers different benefits. “Ragi is good for calcium, bajra for iron and jowar has a good protein content. Use the correct millet, as per your health requirement and in the right proportion, as too much can lead to digestion issues. Also, millets are available in whole form, not just as powders. So instead of consuming rice, have millets. When we make rajma at my home there’s always khichdi, oat or millets to accompany it. This reduces my starch intake and increases my nutrient content,” she explains. Natasha opts for little millet, foxtail millet and barnyard millet instead of rice. “Choosing the right millet is essential. Lots of people tell me that they cook ragi as a whole millet. This will never taste great. It’s important to use the correct option too,” she reasons.
However, Natasha also maintains that preparation of millets is as important as actually eating the millets. “Whole millets must be soaked for 5-6 hours for easy digestion and to gain all the nutrient content. It’s similar to how we prepare chole or rajma.” Apart from this, portion control is necessary. “If you can consume two bowls of rice, prepare one bowl of millets as it is heavier. For people who are just switching to a millet diet, use a 50 percent millet and 50 percent flour ratio. This helps in acquiring a taste for millets.”
Millets, Natasha claims, improve your overall health. The benefits include great skin, good hair and improved cholesterol levels. “However, it’s important to exercise and reduce your intake of refined foods too, if you want to see long-term changes,” she maintains.
“I’ve been fortunate to have gained the MasterChef India experience. In fact, I am still in touch with the judges. They still mentor me in my journey as a chef. I recently met Chef Vineet Bhatia at an event, and continue to stay in touch with Chef Vikas Khanna who lives in New York and, of course, Chef Ranveer Brar, who always responds! MasterChef evolved me as a person. Two years ago, I would not have been able to stand in the kitchen for over 15 hours and cook under pressure. MasterChef India prepared me well for that. Now, I plan to include more varieties of dessert on my menu for House of Millets. My customers have requested for cheesecakes and tiramisu, which I am working on. I also plan to incorporate bread items and Indian mithais on the menu, hopefully by the end of this year!”
Natasha reveals that 2023 is the year of millets, as declared by the UN General Assembly. “Millets are the sustainable way forward. I hope people realise this and include it in their daily diets. Hopefully, MasterChef India can introduce a millet-based round for the next season too!”
Natasha, through her venture House of Millets, is attempting to change the way people look at desserts. By opting for healthier and sustainable ingredients with unabated flavour, House of Millets is sending out a larger message here — you do not need to indulge at the cost of your health.
Recipe: Lauki Kulfi — The perfect low-ki healthy summer dessert
These kulfis look and taste like pistachio kulfi but with the goodness of the humble lauki.
Makes: 2 Kulfi
- 100 grams lauki aka bottle gourd
- 200 ml milk
- 3 tbsp jaggery
- 4-5 whole elaichis (cardamom)
- Wash and peel the lauki properly. Grate and then blend to a paste in a small chutney blender.
- In a thick-bottomed saucepan heat milk and reduce it till it’s half and thickened. Ensure the flame is slow to medium and you keep stirring at regular intervals.
- Once reduced, add the lauki purée along with elaichi powder and mix.
- Keep stirring for 5-8 mins till the mixture is thick.
- Switch off the flame and add jaggery and mix till it’s melted.
- Pour into kulfi moulds and set in the refrigerator overnight.