Before there was rice…


…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’.

Grainy goodness

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!

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:


* Millet (dehusked!) – 200 gms

* Water – approx 5 times the quantity of millets

* Salt

* 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

up close...pearl-like

– 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.


12 responses »

    • Thanks Shivani. Tell me if you treat it differently. Knowing your flavor master, I know it will be something to learn!

  1. You are a natural writer Shruti. Thank you for the excellent history lesson on Millet and sharing your personal experience in India. I have always enjoyed millet and look forward to trying out your recipe.

  2. Wonderful. You are indeed a natural writer. Love all the research you have on millet. Believe it or not, I discovered millet, quinoa, bulgar wheat, polenta etc all coz Sanjay my husband decided to go off his hypertensive medications & needed a complete change in diet – one that was gluten free & low glycemic index. Thereafter began my wonderful journey with discovering all these grains & making salads out of them. One request: what about the poor ragi. What is this called in English, where is it available & how to cook? Also olive oil vs til oil & some recipes with those. So look forward to your lovely blogging. Keep going my dear

    • Thank you! Good news is that millet=raagi. Just a different language. Never cooked it, but of course google zindabad. I am interested in your `grains’ experience – did the diet help with his hypertension? Do share some of your recipes with me.
      In my mind olive and til oil are very different flavor families and I use them differently. So it’s not an olive vz. til thing. The commonality is that I use both as toppings/dressings rather than cooking mediums (I’m referring only to EV OO here of course, the regular olive oil is what I use to cook my Western food).
      Hope this helps – and keep the conversation going!

      • Wow That’s amazing then. We all know the loads of value from raagi. It is almost the cure all for all minor ailments according to South Indian Mamie’s & GP’s :))

        As regards the cereal salads – basically tabbouleh, quinoa, bulgar wheat are all low on glycemic index & olive oil has loads of natural food value. Combining both is a winning combination. Couscous glycemic index is higher than those cereal I listed, but lower than pastas. We now have a lovely Italian gourmet store in An Phu (Italian embassy has partnership in this) who makes home made pastas. So I get my pastas here. They even do fresh gnocchi. Then polenta I mix in some of the breads I make. I will send you the recipe for some of these. Most of them I made up according to taste & trial & error. Sanjay’s blood pressure is under control since these changes. Of course he has to maintain a “low ish” / non Indian weight level (am sure you get what I mean) & exercise has to be regular for all these measures to work. So fingers crossed.

        Wow this is great 🙂

        • Wow – fresh pasta is a treat! Honestly I find it so hard to use dried now…don’t know what I will do when I leave Italy (took a course on fresh pasta in the hope of making it myself)! I’d be really interested in your bread recipes – wanted to do so for some time now but I always felt like it’s too much hard work…

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