Over the past few years, the North-East has been seeing a silent but determined movement to promote local millets, such as foxtail, sorghum and pearl, and revive some that had virtually gone extinct. Millet raishan, for instance, used to be a staple food in Nongtraw, in Meghalaya’s Khasi Hills, until the early 1970s. “It was our rice,” remembers Pius Ranee, executive director of the Meghalaya-based North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (Nesfas)— even used in soups, breads, biscuits and local beer. Job’s tears, megaru in Garo and sohriew in Khasi, too had given way to rice and wheat.
Now, organisations such as Nesfas, the Nagaland-based Northeast Network and Assam-based Caritas India (FARM North East programme) are working to revive of millet cultivation; it helps that 2023 is being celebrated as the International Year of Millets. Meghalaya’s Mei-Ramew cafés, for instance, have introduced millet dishes, with Nesfas’ support. Mei-Ramew, incidentally, translates to mother earth. After a Nesfas-promoted workshop, Naphisa Mawroh, a local baker in Shillong, has begun producing and marketing millet-based products, including breads, cookies, cupcakes and pizzas, at her café, Samanbha Bakery.
Ranee believes superior soil quality, better manure and the age-old techniques of farming (jhum or shifting cultivation, for instance) explain why millets grown in the North-East are a cut above the rest. Interestingly, there are stories—though not authenticated—of elderly farmers who kept many of these “heritage” seeds in their cloth bags, trunks, even sourcing them from relatives.
“From one or two communities focused on reviving millet cultivation, we now have 44 communities in Meghalaya who are documenting, researching, and growing various kinds of millets,” says Ranee. Some schools in Meghalaya are even introducing millets into midday meals. In Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, Caritas India says hanjan millen, or foxtail millets, are again being cultivated. Two years ago, a Millet Cultivation Project was launched in Arunachal Pradesh’s Riga village, in Siang district, by the College of Horticulture and Forestry in association with the Indian Council for Agricultural Research-run Indian Institute of Millets Research. Millets cultivation has grown from 20-30% of the total cropped area to a whopping 70%, across 17 districts. In March, they even organised a Millet Walkathon. Sikkim, too, is seeing a revival of kodo millets.
Ranee says Nesfas, started in 2012, has focused on documenting indigenous crops, grains and plants. “I remember eating millets as a boy… I didn’t even realise when it was replaced by rice,” says Ranee who, along with family members, has been organising events and talking about millets at traditional harvesting festivals, even going door-to-door in villages to convince people to bring millets back into kitchens. In 2018, Nesfas came up with a campaign, “No Woman no Krai” (millet in Khasi)—a take Bob Marley’s iconic song, No Woman No Cry—to highlight the importance of women in millet cultivation.
Dimapur-based chef Joel Basumatari, who set up the Nagaland chapter of the global Slow Food movement in 2018, is popularising Naga cuisine and developing recipes based on what he calls the “orphan crop”. Delhi-based chefs too are introducing millets from the region. Chef Vanshika Bhatia of the Gurugram, Haryana-based OMO Cafe, who recently visited Nagaland’s Mon district, held a Nagaland food festival earlier this month and is now gearing up for another food festival, Naga Millets. “In terms of taste and texture, the Naga millets are sweeter, hence they are also good for fermenting. Additionally, some have a sticky texture that allows dishes featuring them to have a crunch and nutty flavour,” she says.
Chef Arun Sundararaj, director of culinary operations, Taj Mahal, New Delhi, too has used millets from the North-East and other parts of the country in dishes such as foxtail waffles and buckwheat uttapam with caviar topping.
Abhilasha Ojha is a Delhi-based writer.