I first encountered jowar, bajra and ragi when I was around 12 years old. Not on the dinner table, but on the pages of a geography textbook.
We were learning — as all Indian children did in those days, and many still do — about agriculture. We mugged up the fact that “India is an agricultural country” and the nitty-gritty of rabi and kharif. We memorised the top five rice-producing states; and the top five wheat-producing states in India. After which we learnt that maize requires fertile soil and plenty of sunlight.
Then, just when we thought we were done with Food Crops, we hit a sneaky section at the bottom of the chapter. The paragraph, merely labelled “Others”, was devoted to three grains that few of us had actually consumed (and once we read the textbook, they promptly became the three grains that few of us ever intended to consume).
Bajra, jowar and ragi were snottily dismissed as coarse grains that were “the poor man’s staples”. And this drab description — repeated over the years in Geography and Economics classes through school and college — probably steered generations of middle-class Indians away from these millets.
Blame it on ignorance or on lousy PR. But there was no way that your average Bombayite was going to gobble brown balls of ragi mudde or hearty bajra rotlas while watching Chhaya Geet on Doordarshan. Or slurp a uranium-heavy, lumpy porridge for breakfast before leaping onto the 7.21 Churchgate Fast. Not without the nagging of a bossy granny. Or the interference of a nosy neighbour, determined to disseminate the horrors and healthfulness of ragi porridge.
If I sound irritable, there’s a reason. As someone who had to gulp down that sludgy purple-brown, neighbour-recommended porridge during a six-month-long convalescence, I can vouch for one fact. The things that make you healthy don’t necessarily make you happy; and the things that make you well don’t necessarily star in your food column.
Bajra, jowar and ragi do, however, star in this column for a simple reason. Over the last two decades, they have shed their earnest image and turned trendy and daring. They have ventured beyond gluggy gruels into the realm of smoky, addictive nachni chips and satisfying ragi pancakes; nutty-flavoured bajra khakras and crunchy cranberry and almond toasted millet mueslis. And in the process have revealed complex, earthy flavours that we never expected.
Traditional dishes such as bajra khichdis cooked with meat and dense, complex Maharashtrian thaalipeeths have found new fans. As have brave creations such as jowar salad topped with pomegranate and pistachio and drizzled with tahini and orange juice. Nachni tarts filled with farm fresh vegetables. Jowar bhakris served pizza-style with a topping of avocado salsa or goat cheese. And even ragi mudde, rescued from stodginess with a stuffing of ghee roast and beetroot tuille. (This is fact, not fiction.)
Barnyard millet flour and kodo millet dosa mixes; millet cookies and jowar cake mixes are suddenly everywhere. My daughters carry choco-filled ragi bites to school for their snack. Kamal, who cooks for my family, now makes her spectacular nankhatais with bajra instead of maida. All of which beg the questions: How have these hitherto neglected staples suddenly become ubiquitous? And these once-humble ingredients stormed their way into hipsterdom?
From “famine fare” to “superfood trend of the moment”, the transformation has taken place for a number of reasons. Millets are cheaper than the enormously popular quinoa. Also, at a time when gluten is being viewed with suspicion, they are gluten-free grains versatile enough to play understudy to wheat. Their health benefits are even more amazing than our grannies claimed — and they are literally bursting with iron, fibre, antioxidants and all sorts of nutritional goodies.
To add to their earthy aura, millets are among the earliest foods cultivated by man. There are 6,000 varieties that we know of today, and most have originated from Africa. Jowar or sorghum spread to India around 4,000 years ago. Bajra or pearl millet has been cultivated here for at least as long. As has ragi or finger millet. These three grains — and their lesser-known siblings such as kodo millet and barnyard millet — were once as central to the Indian diet as rice or wheat. And it was only after the Green Revolution of the 1960s that food habits changed and narrowed. Which seems strange, given that millets are able to survive extreme weather conditions, droughts and pests. They require very little water and almost no pesticides. And they can be stored for a decade after they are harvested.
Little wonder, then, that goddess Kali is a ragi buff. As was Haider Ali, the Sultan of Mysore, who made it a point to get his ragi fix before riding into battle. Like them, I require my ragi fix too — as long as it’s not served up as a sandy-pasty porridge.
I’m convinced that there isn’t a potato chip in the world that can rival a brown, salty nachni chip. Or a muesli that doesn’t improve with the addition of toasted millets. Or a meal that isn’t perked up by a fat, hot bajra rotla — dolloped with butter and the smugness that comes with eating super-healthy.
Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author
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