…there was millet. Millet, along with maize, was one of the earliest food grains cultivated by humans. About 10,000 years ago, millet was cultivated in the neolithic societies of China, India and Africa, from where it spread to Europe. It is a crop wonderfully suited to the harsher, more `natural’ world of that time – it is hardy and withstands droughts and pests, it needs very little water and can grow in arid land. Best, it does not spoil quickly, which made it wonderful `famine insurance’.
Nutritionally, it has the same protein content as wheat, and is also a great source of magnesium. The ancient Romans cooked it up into a porridge called puls, which was eaten with eggs and vegetables. I am told it is still eaten that way in North Italy but of course it’s not the kind of thing you might find on a restaurant menu…too homey for that?
In my part of India, it is called bajra, and it is ground up into flour which is made into thick tortilla-style flatbreads which are cooked over a coal or wood fire. It’s called bajre ki roti and it is typically served with oodles of butter/ghee. It was pretty regular food in the old days, I am told. Proof of which is an old Punjabi wedding/folk song called called Bajre da sitta (A Stalk of Millet). As a child I remember my late aunt singing it in her husky rustic voice, as earthy and authentically Punjabi as the roti itself. For a more zippy version, dripping with Bollywood glamour, click here! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1n60bfFS_hk
So why has poor millet fallen out of favor? It’s now mainly used for birdseed and cattle feed and also used to make alcohol (hmm??!!). Many of us have probably never eaten it in our lives…I only have the vaguest memory of having eaten a bajre ki roti. Where and when, I cannot recall.
Wealth and modern agriculture – those are the reasons millet is not seen on the supermarket shelves a lot. It is an inconvenient grain in the sense that it needs a lot of milling before it becomes edible (it has a tough external husk) and more importantly, it is gluten-free. Great for those with allergies, but inconvenient for any kind of bread. Gluten is what makes flour pliable – it allows kneading, rolling and stretching (for roti and bread) and rising (for bread with yeast). So typically, only the poor will eat bread that is heavy, and hard to roll out. Easy to understand.
Time to peer into ancient cooking pots then, and see what out ancestors might have eaten. I discovered millet in my neighborhood supermarket in the `speciality foods’ section, and decided to experiment with it. Making rotis of any kind (and heaven forbid…bajra!) is just too much hard work, so, I chose the easy way out. I cooked millet like I would cook any other grain – boiled and dressed and served with a stew. Here’s what I did:
ANCIENT MILLETS IN COOK POT
* Millet (dehusked!) – 200 gms
* Water – approx 5 times the quantity of millets
* Cumin powder – a large pinch
* Paprika powder – a large pinch
* Parsley – small bunch, chopped
* Lemon juice – 1 tbsp approx.
* Extra virgin olive oil – 1 tbsp
* Raisins – a few
* Pine nuts (chilgoze) – a few
– In a heavy pan, dry roast the millet over medium heat for 5-7 mins until slightly fragrant…but not brown!
– Add the water and salt, bring to the boil.
– Lower the heat to medium, and cook uncovered for 20-25 mins until the grains are soft but still have some `bite’.
– Strain out the water and let the millets cool and `dry out’
– Once the grains have cooled, add in the olive oil, lemon juice, paprika, raisins, pine nuts, parsley and cumin powder.
– I served it with meatballs in tomato sauce…
The verdict? Delicious, and versatile. Like cous cous, but with a stronger texture. Will I cook it again? Yes. As an addition to the repertoire of grains that I cook. One more interesting thing in the store cupboard.
I’m know there are other, equally delicious ways of cooking and serving millet. I have been told it makes a great breakfast cereal, with milk and sugar, like oatmeal/daliya. Perhaps that is an experiment for another day.