Millets — small edible seeds of wild grasses — are sweeping the world off its feet, making a sensational debut as the latest superfoods. These are being referred to as nutri-cereals, high in protein and micro-nutrients, low in glycemic index and free from gluten. By weight, they pack more energy and vitamins than much more expensive meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables. The million-dollar question that stares us in the face is: why then have the mighty midgets been forgotten and are not a part of our daily diet? Even the bright-eyed millennials, otherwise so conscious of their health, have only recently become aware of their existence. What is forgotten most of the time is that our pre-historic hunter-gatherer ancestors had subsisted on millets for millennia before they could tame other wild grasses like rice or mastered the cultivation of wheat and maize. Archaeological researches have brought to light evidence of millets being used as food in China, India and other early cradles of human civilisation, thousands of years before the birth of Christ.
In India, for generations, different millets have provided sustenance to those dwelling in arid lands and remote villages in forests and mountains where little else can grow. Bajra (pearl millet), jowar (sorghum), jau (barley), ragi and mandwa (finger millets), jhangora (barnyard millet) and kodo millet are major crops in different parts of India and myriad dishes, sweet and savoury, have traditionally been prepared using them. Bajra reigns supreme in Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat and khichdi, kheer and rabadi, a tangy soupy broth, made from it are recognised as signature delicacies. Ragi is relished most in Karnataka. Holige is a popular dish that doesn’t require any adornments. In Maharashtra and the Deccan plateau, it is jowar and jau that please the local palate most. Bhakri and rotis are paired with jhunker and thecha (hot chilli chutneys). In Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, barley is ground and consumed with yak butter-laced salted tea. In Uttarakhand and Bihar, mandwa, a close cousin of fingernail millet, is valued for its sweet taste. The texture may be coarse, but rotis and halwa made from mandwa are quite common in the countryside. Nowadays, ragi is being used to prepare healthier dosai, appam and idli as well. We are also advised to add some millets to khichdi or dalia made at home even if we can’t substitute rice or wheat with them. Salads can, of course, be fortified with millets.
During cereal-less ritual fasting days, millets that are not considered ann/anaaj (cereal) are the main source of nourishment for those eschewing regular food. Jangura (barnyard millet), also known as samak ke chawal, is used to make the most satisfying kheer. Other kosher food items like bade and pue have also relied on millets.
These ancient grains require a special skill to cook them properly. The cooking time is longer and most grains have to be soaked in water for hours. Pressure cooking can reduce the time taken but a meal of millets has to be planned in advance. Like any other ingredient, millets too become familiar friends when we don’t look at them as exotic aliens. A small amount of time spent mixing and matching millets with our favourite spices, sweeteners and souring agents goes a long way.
The major reason millets have suffered from popular disdain is that they continue to be perceived as the staple fare of the abjectly poor. Ironically, the poor have themselves moved from millets to less nutritious, refined and over-processed grains as foods prepared with these are aspirational. This is what the rich, the educated and the city dwellers eat. It needed a powerful nudge to bring about a change.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi must be given the credit for jogging the memory of his compatriots about millets, children of swadeshi soil. He began by serving at least one delicacy prepared from Indian millets to the state guests invited to dine with him. It is his exertions that persuaded the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to declare 2023 as the International Year of Millets. Before this, the UNGA had declared a Year of Quinoa at the behest of Chile. Interestingly, this was a grain that appeared to threaten local millets in India as people were using it in salads, pilaf and porridge. He focused on how millets could cope with the challenge of hunger and malnutrition, help build immunity and popularise sustainable agriculture. The crop requires little water, can resist extreme climate changes and has a shorter cropping season compared to rice or wheat. India is the third largest producer of millets in the world after China and Nigeria, accounting for almost 25 per cent of the total crop.
After the PM shared his admiration for millets on Mann ki Baat, millet ‘pop-ups’ and millet-based food festivals suddenly proliferated in five-star hotels and restaurants. Celebrity chefs and nutritionists took the cue and started playing around with millets. Brand ambassadors vied with one other creating seductive fusion recipes and plating them like painters. Blending flavours and tweaking recipes from different regions, Nishant Choubey, consulting chef at Michelin-plated Indus in Bangkok, has been popularising millets and encouraging home cooks to emulate him. Food companies like Quickish have taken the lead in offering tempting choices of ‘ready to cook’ pre-mixed packets of tasty preparations fortified with millets. Pallavi Upadhyaya, a Delhi-based award-winning social entrepreneur, has been working on establishing reliable supply chains, handholding farmers in different states, organising workshops and masterclasses as well as creating a repertoire of recipes. Easy to prepare at home recipes include burger patties, papri chaat, noodles and pasta, fillings for samosa and kachori, muthiya, ragda pattice, roasted millet bhel — all excellent options to wean children away from junk food.
Whether Indians will continue to be enthusiastic about millets after the excited celebration of the Year of the Millets is over, is difficult to foretell. It will be a pity if this trend turns out to be a passing vogue, riding piggyback on rising waves of vegan and organic repast.
Pearl millet chat timbale
(With avocado mousse, tamatar ki chat & strawberry chutney) courtesy: Chef Nishant Choubey
Bajra (pearl millet) 50 gm
Avocado 120 gm
Cream cheese 50 gm
Fresh tomatoes 500 gm
Red chilli powder 2 tsp
Imli chutney 2 tbsp
Strawberries (fresh) 300 gm
Breakfast sugar 50 gm
Vinegar 1 tbsp
Cumin seeds 2 tsp
Ginger (fresh) 30 gm
Chat masala 2 tsp
Amchoor powder 1 tsp
Lemon juice 2 tsp
Olive oil 2 tbsp
Method: Soak the bajra for an hour and boil it in three times the water. Add salt before boiling.
Tamatar ki chat: In a pan, add olive oil, chopped ginger, cumin seeds, cook for a minute. Add roughly cut tomatoes. Cook for three minutes. Season with salt and chilli powder. Add imli chutney and sugar. Finish with chat masala, amchoor powder and black salt.
Avocado mousse: Blend avocado with cream cheese. Season with lemon juice and chat masala.
Strawberry chutney: Cut strawberries and simmer in a vinegar, red chilli powder and sugar solution. Cool and blend. Take it back on the pan and reduce it to get desired consistency. Finish with chat masala. Assemble and serve.
Maduwa 1 cup
Ghee 1/4 cup
Jaggery 1/2 cup (crumbled)
Method: Dry roast the maduwa millets till they exude a pleasant aroma. Remove from flame and allow to cool. Grind coarsely in a mixer. Heat ghee in a pan and add the maduwa ‘flour’ ground earlier. Stir-fry for a couple of minutes. Now add the jaggery mixed with half a cup of hot water. Stir to mix well and cook on medium flame for 2-3 minutes, till well blended.
Add 2 cups of boiling water in a slow steady stream, stirring constantly to avoid formation of lumps. Cook for 10-12 minutes till the mixture thickens. Add more water if it looks dry. It should have a consistency thicker than porridge but should remain semi-solid. The texture is not like rava halwa. Garnish with slices of dry coconut.
Sometimes badi is prepared by omitting jaggery and adding salt to taste. It can then be paired with dal or seasonal leafy green vegetables.
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