The woman squatting in front of the earthen chulha (stove) fanned the flame with the edge of her sari as she turned the bajra bhakri (flatbread made from pearl millet flour) over and topped it with a generous dollop of ghee. With a shy smile, she handed it to me on a plate with piping-hot 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 middle of winter, and the earthy, slightly sweet flavour of the millets seemed to warm me up from the very inside.
Millets are a group of small grains – technically seeds – that are grown on lands 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 in traditional Indian cooking, millets fell out of favour over the years, and have been making a slow comeback in India and across the world. To keep this momentum going, the United Nations has declared 2023 the International Year of Millets.
At the announcement ceremony in December 2022, Qu Dongyu, the Director-General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, spoke about the nutritive value of millets and their invaluable role in empowering small farmers, tackling food security issues and achieving sustainable development.
While this may be news for much of the Global North, millets have been staple food in India (and parts of Africa) for several centuries, having come from China at least 5,000 years ago. There are nine kinds of millets cultivated across various regions in India, such as sorghum, finger millet, little millet, kodo millet, foxtail millet and barnyard millet. These vary in colour, size and texture, but share roughly the same nutritional profile. And all of them have local names in many Indian languages, attesting to their historical popularity across regions.