Whenever I come in contact with the Indian barnyard millet, also known as varai, samo, bhagar or "vrat ke chawal" I'm reminded of the story that our family friend Dr. Anil Paranjpe related to us a few years ago.
An ophthalmologist by profession, he conducts eye camps in the poverty and drought ridden interiors of Maharashtra. One day, after lunch at our place, he told us about how during one such philanthropic expedition where they treated villagers, he and his son were moved by the sight of a poor old lady coyly opening her lunch box and eating plain cooked "vari chi tandul" (plain barnyard millet cooked with water and salt). With no vegetables, dals or other preparations to accompany the meal, this provided her with sole sustenance.
In the dry arid interiors of the Indian state of Maharashtra and other places, where its difficult to grow vegetables and other crops "millets" which grow easily in dry zones, form a major part of their diet.
But, are millets meant only for these poor old farmers? And how do they sustain themselves with only millets forming a major chunk of their diet?
Millets, being one of the oldest foods known to humans, are also one of the most nutrient dense foods. Rich in minerals like iron, magnesium, phosphorous and potassium, some millets are known to have ten times more calcium than that of rice or wheat. Also, rich in B vitamins, they are known to reduce the risks of lifestyle diseases. And the best part about millets are that they are easily digestible, least allergenic and great for those who are gluten intolerant.
Belonging to the genus, echinochloa, millets are tiny seeded grasses that grow with the least human intervention in comparison to other grains like rice or wheat. They are also known to be inherently bio-diverse and farmers usually grow millets in combination with other pulses, legumes, vegetables and oil seeds.
I came across a literature from the first "national convention of millet farmers" that was held in Dharwad, where farmers from eight Indian states came together in 2011 to discuss the revival of this forgotten food and the challenges in preserving the natural seeds that evolved under specific agro climatic conditions without succumbing to the pressures of using hybrids and GM varieties.
In India cereals, grains and beans are not consumed during specific fasts, like the Ekadashi or during the Navratras. Barnyard millet steps in as a suitable alternative to rice since its technically a seed.
What did not appeal to me about Varai is that it turned sticky and soggy once cooked and I rarely cooked it during the days of fasting. However, on one Ekadashi day I remembered the Varai Pulao that my father's sister, my aunt Prabha had made which was not a soggy mess. And I had the fortune of referring to my 15 year old recipe book where I had scribbled the recipe promptly in one of the pages.
A little improvisation and I was well on my way to a spectacular pulao with separate grains and may I repeat it again no "soggy mess".
I often cook this on Ekadashi days and serve it up with a baby potato curry and a cooling raita. For those looking for a variation or alternative to their wheat and rice meals, this can make a great weekday or weekend lunch or dinner meal.
And the highlight of making this is always the moment when the lid is opened and the aroma of the spices wafts through the air giving the utter comfort of a great home cooked meal!
Indian Barnyard Millet Pilaf/ Varai Pulao
You can also use vegetables like cauliflower here.
440 gm (2 cups) barnyard millets or varai
2 carrots, cut into stripes
2 bell peppers, cut into cubes
1/2 cup cabbage, shredded (optional)
1 potato, cut into cubes (optional)
1 tsp cumin seeds
6 green cardamom seeds
8 to 10 peppercorns
4 to 5 tbsp ghee or vegetable oil
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 green chili, smashed with a mortar and pestle
1 litre (4 cups) water
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup extra water if required
2 1/2 tsp salt or to taste
Dry roast the millets on a low flame until they acquire a nutty flavour, about 8 to 10 minutes, while ensuring that they do not turn brown. This step is crucial to get cooked millets which are fluffy and do not stick to each other.
Prepare the vegetables and keep aside.
In a small iron skillet, put int he whole spices and roast until aromatic, about 3 to 4 minutes. Powder these spices with a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder.
In a large pan or a cocotte, put in the ghee or vegetable oil and heat over a medium flame until the ghee melts if using ghee or until the oil is hot but not smoking. Lower the heat and put in the ginger and chili, stir fry for a minute. Put in the vegetables and cook covered for about 3 to 4 minutes on low heat.
Pour in the water over the vegetables and bring to a boil. Lower the heat.
Stir in the powdered garam masala and salt.
Wash the millets and and put them into the water, just as it comes to a boil.
Squeeze in the lime juice.
Cover and cook till done on the lowest heat possible, for about 15 to 20 minutes. After 15 minutes, if you find that the top layer is uncooked, then sprinkle 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup water over it, cover and cook for 5 minutes more.
Serve with a cooling raita and a vegetable curry.
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