The United Nations General Assembly, last week, adopted a unanimous resolution to commemorate 2023 as the “International Year of Millets.” Initiated by India, the resolution was co-sponsored by six other countries – Nepal, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia, Senegal, and Kenya. The underlying objective is to create greater awareness of the nutritional and ecological benefits of millet consumption as well as cultivation. Furthermore, T.S Tirumurti, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, also emphasized this move to “drive policy actions and focus for enhanced investments in research and development and extension services related to millets”.
Prior to the resolution being passed, the Indian Mission distributed “murukku” to all the representatives of UN Member States. While a tasting of this millet-based Indian snack, would not have been the only driving factor for the resolution to pass, it surely would have conveyed the point that healthy foods can also be gustatory delights.
More importantly, millets––most prominent ones being ragi (finger millet), korra (foxtail millet), jowar (sorghum), bajra (pearl millet) and sanwa (barnyard millet)––are rich in nutrients including calcium, proteins, vitamins, iron, zinc and fibre. Owing to their immense health value, millets are also known as nutri-cereals. Furthermore, they can be grown in harsher climates with requiring relatively less water and chemicals, a reason why they are also referred to as coarse grains.
Millets have been an integral part of the Indian diet for centuries, with their cultivation being mentioned as early as the time of the Sindhu-Sarasvati Civilization. The text Bhojanakutuhalam also details the attributes of Sorghum as being “sweet, strengthening, treats vitiations of the three dosas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha), is aphrodisiac, imparts tastes, treats hemorrhoids, wholesome, treats tumor and wounds.”
Today, millets continue to be consumed across India. In the northern state of Rajasthan, Bajra or pearl millet is commonly prepared as roti (flatbread), khichdi (savoury porridge) or raabri (soup). Similarly, some of the traditional food made of Ragi include muddu (dumplings) in Karnataka, koozh, (porridge) in Tamil Nadu or Puttu in Kerala. Nucchina Unde, another delicacy native to Karnataka, dosa (crepes) and payasam (pudding) all made of millets are some other culinary treats. The harvest of millets is also celebrated in many parts of India, such as the Metumniu festival of the Yemchunger Tribe in Nagaland. The many diverse, traditional recipes and customs revolving around millets, indicate that these grains play a central role in India’s gastronomical heritage. It also tells us the importance our forefathers accorded to eating wholesome and healthy meals while keeping the environmental factors in consideration.
Unfortunately, many traditional recipes and the accompanying culinary wisdom around millets were lost, over the past sixty years. This was primarily because of the Green Revolution and subsequent policies that encouraged the cultivation of high-yielding crops of rice and wheat. Consequently, millet cultivation became uneconomical and these nutritional grains were reduced to “poor man’s food,” consumed in much lower numbers than pre-Green Revolution times.
However, millets are gradually gaining popularity once more as individuals become more conscious of their eating habits. The wave of veganism, gluten-free diets and superfoods have once again brought millets back to the plates and conversations around food within India as well as across the world. Packed with nutrients and good carbohydrates, millet-based diets are becoming increasingly sought after for addressing heart conditions, diabetes and weight control, among other health issues. Moreover, with their high-energy content, millets can also be instrumental in addressing challenges of malnutrition and hunger, especially in children. The production of millets can also serve as an eco-friendly alternative to water and chemical-intensive cultivation of crops like wheat and rice, used for mass consumption.
Realizing its many advantages, India has been at the forefront of encouraging agricultural production and innovation revolving around millets and millet-related services. Towards this end, 2018 was declared as the National Year of Millets with the objective of generating greater awareness around these climate-resilient and nutritionally rich crops within India. The country’s role in successfully driving a campaign to observe 2023 as the International Year of the Millets, therefore, will further enable India to share the knowledge of millet consumption and production at a global scale.
It also paves way for India to initiate millet-based gastrodiplomacy. Efforts in this direction could include incentivizing chefs and food entrepreneurs to revive as well as innovate millet gastronomy; increase investment in R&D and millet-related enterprises; hosting international cultural exchanges between the culinary schools of India and the world, and organizing food festivals within India and outside to introduce regional cuisines of different countries to residents. These initiatives will also bring together other major millet-consuming nations of Africa, South Asia and China together. Millets are also a part of traditional Russian cuisine, as highlighted by Russia’s Mission to the UN on the day the resolution was passed. Western nations of Europe and America, however, have lower consumption of millets but are gradually waking up to the profound health benefits of these nutri cereals.
Thus, drawing attention to the benefits of millets at the world stage is a timely move by India for multiple reasons. On one hand, it bolsters the consumption of millets influenced by new culinary trends such as conscious consumption and mindful eating. On the other, it provides a solution to tackling the growing global concerns over malnutrition and ecological degradation. And finally, it reinstates India’s potential to lead and shape the ideals of healthy and sustainable living, for the benefit of the entire humankind.
Feature Image: Outlook Poshan