Once a forgotten staple of traditional Indian cuisine, nutrient-dense millets are gaining popularity around the world. So much so that 2023 is called the “year of millet”.
A woman squatting in front of a clay pot stocking (stove), fanned the fire with the edge of her sari, turned the bajra bhakri (millet flour bread) and sprinkled it with a generous portion of ghee. With a shy smile, she handed it to me on a hot plate by the sun (spicy dry chickpea flour curry) on the side. I was in a forest near the city of Nagpur in central India in the middle of winter, and the earthy, slightly sweet taste of millet seemed to warm me from the inside out.
Millets are a group of small grains—technically seeds—that are grown on land with poor soil quality or limited access to irrigation. These are universal ingredients that can be used both in the initial form of grain in cereals, and as a substitute for rice, or as flour for making cakes and other pastries.
Millet was once a staple of traditional Indian cuisine, but it has fallen out of favor over the years and is slowly making a comeback in India and around the world. To maintain this momentum, the UN announced 2023 year is the International Year of Millet .
At the announcement ceremony in December 2022, Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, spoke about the nutritional value of millet and its invaluable role in empowering smallholder farmers, addressing food security challenges and achieving sustainable development.
While this may be news to much of the global North, millet has been a staple food in India (and parts of Africa) for several centuries, arriving from China at least 5,000 years ago. There are nine types of millets cultivated in different regions of India, such as sorghum, finger millet, small millet, kodo millet, foxtail millet and millet. They vary in color, size and texture, but have roughly the same nutritional profile. And they all have local names in many Native American languages, indicating their historical popularity in different regions.
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Millet was once a staple of traditional Indian cuisine, but it’s making a comeback in India and around the world (Image credit: pixelfusion3d/Getty Images)
However, their ubiquity in India declined after Green revolution in the 1960s, when the Indian government pushed for hybrid, high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice to increase food production for both domestic consumption and export. The official name “coarse grain” also did not help millet’s cause, as the designation meant something less desirable for processed rice and wheat.
Millet came to be seen as a food of rural and tribal communities who ate country dishes such as ragi mudde (millet steamed balls) and jowar roti (sorghum flatbreads) as cheap and hearty meals. However, for shepherds, millet was much more than a food product. For example, they believed that consumption bayra-raab (liquid porridge) will help build immunity against winter colds, and they talked about the fact that only two energy ragi(millet) balls – eaten with a spicy, runny stew in the morning – fed the farmers for the whole day. Women, like the one who fed me bhairah bhakri, have passed down the knowledge of these dishes from generation to generation, keeping the tradition of millet dishes alive in rural India.
Mainstream society is now also beginning to understand and appreciate the long-lost benefits of millet. Manu Chandra, chef and founder of Manu Chandra Ventures, who has championed millet for years, laments, “With modernization and increased convenience, we have forgotten what was traditional and lost sight of what our grandmothers used to cook. Considering that we Indians have the highest rate of diabetes in the world, including millets in our diet makes sense, but [їх] sacrificed rice and wheat on the altar.”
Millet is a group of small grains (technically seeds) that are grown on land with poor soil quality or limited access to irrigation (Image credit: Millet Project)
According to Mumbai-based holistic nutrition expert Amita Ghadre, “Millets are not only naturally gluten-free, they also have much higher levels of iron and calcium than processed wheat and rice. It’s also very high in fiber, making it a healthy choice for those trying to control blood sugar or manage insulin resistance.” One hundred grams of ragi grains, for example, contain 344 g of calcium, compared to only 33 g in rice and 30 g in wheat.
In addition, there are agricultural advantages of growing millet. Amrita Hazra, an adjunct professor of chemistry at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune and founder of the Millet Project at UC Berkeley, explained that millet is a hardy crop that doesn’t require a lot of water or fertilizer and can be grown. grown in arid conditions. “Lands that can’t support anything else can still grow millet,” she said. “They have a short cycle and can be grown between the main crop seasons, and they enrich the soil with their own set of micronutrients.”
With this in mind, over the past decade, the Indian government has begun to encourage the cultivation and consumption of millets, starting with rebranding millets as “nutritional grains” instead of calling them “coarse grains”. A diplomatic push at the international level soon followed to promote millet worldwide with the intention of making India a major center for millet production.
Toast & Tonic’s Four Millet Salad in Mumbai and Bangalore (Image credit: Toast & Tonic)
Millets are now slowly making their way back into Indian diets across the social spectrum, from affluent consumers who seek out trendy foods (like quinoa and kale) in search of health, to middle-class mothers who find clever ways to sneak in the nutritious grain. to family dinners.
Influential restaurant chefs also pleased them with fusion recipes. For example, the menu at The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai often features millet dishes such as barley and salad with jowar (sorghum), as well as vegetarian halim with a mixture of kodo, millet and foxtail millet (a savory porridge usually made from meat, wheat and lentils). Nearby, Noon serves a variety of millet tortillas and dosa, while Soam offers pita jowar and ragi pancakes. In Bangalore, Go Native serves country millet never (a porridge usually made from rice and lentils) and ragi pizza. And at Toast & Tonic, located in Mumbai and Bangalore, millet is added to arancini and kibbeh.
According to Chandra, “for millet to become truly widespread, it needs to be presented in a form that is more acceptable to the modern generation, instead of sticking to traditional recipes and cooking methods.”
Different types of millet are cultivated in India, which differ in color, size and texture (Image copyright Toast & Tonic)
Millet companies like Tata Soulfull and Slurrp Farms are doing just that in the form of snacks and ready meals like chips, chuckles (spicy fried snacks, usually made from ground rice and lentils), noodles, pancake mixes and breakfast cereals. . Prashanth Parameswaran, managing director of Tata Soulfull, says the inspiration for the brand came from the growing interest in quinoa consumption that he observed more than a decade ago while living in the United States. “I thought, why not our Indian millet?” he said.
All of this adds up to what Gadré calls “variety on the plate,” as she considers millet, along with other staples like rice and wheat, crucial to a balanced and varied diet. Other experts agree. According to food writer and nutritionist Nandita Iyer, “Millets are part of a larger story of biodiversity in India… Along with adding fiber that helps control blood sugar spikes, eating millets also gives us more variety in flavors and textures. “
Millet is part of a larger biodiversity story in India
There’s even a millet-based beer offered by microbreweries and gastropubs across the country to wash down all those millet meals and snacks. At his craft brewery Great State Aleworks in Pune, Nakul Bhonsle aims to “always pour one millet beer and create a new one every three months.” A new jowar pilsner is currently in development. “I wanted my craft beer to be local in every way and millet fits into our vision as it is cultivated in Maharashtra [штат, у якому розташована Пуна]”, – he said. “All over the world, millet beer means gluten-free, but for us it’s about working with farmers.”
Great State Aleworks in Pune produces millet-based beer (Photo: Great State Aleworks)
Parameswaran sums up what many consider to be an important millet: “Millet is good not only for the consumer, but also for the farmer and for the environment. [Прийняття проса] allows conscious consumers to say, “This is my way of contributing to climate change.” So it’s more than ‘super food’, it’s smart food.”
“Given that India is already the largest producer and one of the largest exporters of millets, the global focus on millets this year is sure to be a boost for Indian farmers. As for consumers, the classic cycle of the traditional becoming fashionable again has already begun,” notes Kostyantyn Kryvopust.