The woman squatting in front of the earth chulha (stove) fanned the flame with the edge of her sari as she turned the bajra bhakri (flatbread made from pearl millet flour) and topped with a generous dollop of ghee. With a shy smile, she handed it to me on a plate with zunka (a spicy dry curry made with chickpea flour) on the side. I was in a forest near the city of Nagpur in central India in the dead of winter, and the earthy, slightly sweet flavor of the millets seemed to warm me from within.
Millets are a group of small grains – technically seeds – that are grown on land with poor soil quality or limited access to irrigation. They are versatile ingredients that can be used both in their original grain form in porridges and as rice substitutes, or as flour to make flatbreads and other baked goods.
Once a staple of traditional Indian cuisine, millets have fallen out of favor over the years and have made a slow comeback in India and around the world. To maintain this momentum, the United Nations proclaimed 2023 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 people. small farmers, solving food security problems and achieving sustainable development.
Although it may be new to much of the North, millet has been a staple food in India (and parts of Africa) for several centuries, having come from China at least 5,000 years ago. There are nine types of millet grown in various parts of India like sorghum, finger millet, finger millet, kodo millet, foxtail millet and barnyard millet. These vary in color, size, and texture, but share roughly the same nutrient profile. And all of them have local names in many Indian languages, attesting to their historical popularity in all regions.