When we used to visit my grand mom for vacations, it used to be a culinary delight for us children. There were always new things to eat, yummy delicacies to be savored and new tastes to be acquired. It was during one of these gastronomic journeys that I for one discovered that millets were not geographical fiction but true varieties of grains that we actually ate. Her Ragi kanji and kambu adais (Dosa like pancakes made from bajra) were stuffs of dreams. They were yummy and filling. Plus my grand mom had a million stories to tell about their ability to sustain and digest. Being girls and therefore figure conscious, we could indulge in these millety delights without having to fear putting on weight!
What exactly are these millets? Other than wheat, rice, maize & barley there are cereals – a group that we call Millet. Their physical characteristics are similar – they are mostly miniature in size, shaped round and can be used as is. Interestingly, it is believed that the Millet plant was grown by the lake inhabitants of Switzerland during the Stone Age. Millet holds a hallowed place in ancient history. Since the Neolithic Era, millet has been cultivated in the various areas that experience dry climates. From the African continent to northern China, millets have been a staple globally. Another amazing fact which today seems unbelievable is that it was millets that was a main diet of the Indian, Chinese Neolithic and Korean civilizations. Rice came along much later to usurp the space occupied by millets. Millets through their inherent ability to grow in any corner eventually, found their place all over the world. The reason for its popularity was that it was heavy, it was tall, It sprouted, it eared, It nodded, it hung – it practically could be grown anywhere anytime, anyhow! The Chinese were so fond of these little seeds of health that they even had songs in praise of the humble millet – a melodious ode to the wealth of nutrition that this oldest food known to mankind had to offer!
Today there are about 6,000 varieties of millets grown throughout the world. These grains vary from pale yellow, to gray, white, and red in color according to the soil and the variety. Archaeologists believe that no wild plant of the species foxtail millet is known to exist today.
Millets – the origin
The source of millet is miscellaneous with varieties been grown from both Africa and Asia. Pearl millet is primarily grown in the tropical West African region. The finger millet comes from Uganda or its neighboring areas. Finger millets came to India from the African highlands, about 3,000 years ago and from here it made its way to Europe at the beginning of the Christian era. African countries and the Indian subcontinent accepted these cereals without a second thought and they became a staple diet in these regions. They have been an integral part of the human food system as far as one can remember.
The Harrapan & Mohenjadaro archaeological sites have been home to many types of millet and so have the historically important African region. The Mayans, Incas & Aztecs were known to use a variety of millets on their course to culinary expertise. In China, millets were so popular that the leader of the Shang Dynasty in the 2nd millennium BC was known as Hou Chi that roughly translates to ‘The ruler of Millet’.
Millets find ample reference in our own Vedic scriptures like Sathapatha Brahmana. Even the great poet Kalidasa, in his legendary masterpiece ‘Shakuntala’, makes sage Kanva pour foxtail millet while in Dushyanta’s court while bidding farewell to Shakuntala. However the oldest historical roots of millet are to be found in China, where they were considered a holy crop. In those days, people were so methodical in even growing and storing of these grains. One of the earliest recorded writings dates from 2800 BC giving directions for the proper method to handle these grains. From the prehistoric times, millets have been cultivated in Northern India. And the humble millet continued to travel the world – from the Middle East to Northern Africa where it became a staple diet for the poor population. Even the Sumerian civilization made the millet their primary diet about 2500 BC. Millet finds a mention even in the Hebrew bible. An interesting fact that I read up on recently says that one of the wonders of the ancient world – the Hanging Gardens of Babylon apparently had the millet among their treasured plants.
Egyptians learned how to cultivate millet from the Africans, since no plant could withstand the dry Sahara. By 5000 BC Millets had reached the Black Sea region of Europe from China. Romans and Gauls made porridge from it. Even Asterix comics have mention of these wonder plants! By the Middle Ages millet was more extensively eaten than wheat.
Millets are making a comeback to our dining table, but the point to be remembered is that these millets are probably more widely traveled than either you or me! So next time you see the millet, give a bow to these super seeds!