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Most Americans, if they know the name of millet at all, will tend to think of it as birdseed, or, if they’re farmers, as pasturage. That said, in recent years, millet has begun to pop up in the American diet, generally sprinkled in some multi-grain bread (it adds a nice crunch) or even occasionally cooked as a grain, usually at some chichi place that uses arugula and balsamic vinegar a lot. But despite this lack of importance in the U.S., the group of grains known as millets are among the most important food grains in the world, coming in not far behind wheat and rice.
Millet is popular because the plant is tough. It can grow in temperate climates, tropical climates, and climates with little water or too much, and it can grow in poor soils that will not sustain other grains. And it grows quickly. The Moors of the Sahara sow millet whenever one of the desert’s rare rainstorms leaves a depression filled with water. In only forty-five days, they have their crop. Millet varieties are grown and consumed widely in Africa, Arabia, Russia, India, and China—all locations with a wide range of difficult habitats for farming. And if you need further proof of millet’s toughness, you might look to your own lawn. Crabgrass is a variety of millet, and it is a variety widely consumed in Africa. Like other millets, it is determined to grow.
Millet was probably the first cereal grain to be cultivated, just before wheat and barley were domesticated. It seems to have been Asian in origin, and was included in a list from 2800 BC. of China’s five sacred grains. However, it had spread so widely by the time we encounter it in that Chinese list that it is hard to pinpoint its place of origin. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of its cultivation in prehistoric sites ranging from India to Switzerland. It swept across Arabia and North Africa, skipping Egypt alone (the Nile Valley produced so much wheat that no one was looking for a grain alternative), and down into sub-Saharan Africa.
While millets are widespread, this grain family has a tremendous gift of adaptation. There are millet varieties that appear to have been tailor-made for very particular niches. One example is tef, a millet variety that is virtually the only grain crop in Ethiopia. It is this grain that is used to make Ethiopia’s famous flat bread, injera. But teff is basically of no importance outside Ethiopia. Another example is the variety known as “little millet,” which grows almost exclusively along the Tropic of Cancer in India. While this variety of millet has little impact on the cuisine of India as a whole, it is an indispensable staple food of the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
The recipe below is from one of those two millet-dependent regions of India: Madhya Pradesh. These pancakes are fun, spicy snacks or side dishes, and are good plain or with a bit of chutney. You will probably have your best chance at finding the flours used in these pancakes at an Indian grocery store, but you probably won’t find them labeled millet and chickpea flour (though you may find these words on the ingredient list, if the package has an English translation anywhere). Millet flour will most likely be called bajri and chickpea flour will be besan or chana dal flour—at least an Indian store owner will recognize those names, and guide you to what you need. (With something like 197 languages in India, the labeling will often depend on where the storeowner orders products, but these are the most common names for these flours.)
(Spicy Millet and Chickpea Pancakes)
1/2 cup millet flour
1/2 cup chickpea (garbanzo bean) flour
1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 fresh hot green chilies, seeded and very thinly sliced
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
2 Tbs. vegetable oil, plus additional oil for cooking
3/4 cup water
Place the flours, salt, cumin, and turmeric in a bowl, and stir to combine. Add the garlic, chilies, cilantro, vegetable oil, and water, and whisk until thoroughly blended.
Heat a nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat until very hot. Drizzle about a teaspoon of oil on the pan, Pour about 1/4 cup of batter in the pan, tilting the pan if necessary to flow batter outward, creating a circle. Cook until the bottom of the pancake is browned, about 2 minutes. Flip the pancake and cook on the second side until browned, about 30-45 seconds longer. Transfer pancake to a plate and keep warm while you cook the rest of the pancakes. Makes 4 to 8, depending on size.
Notes: The hot green chilies specified are the long (about 4 inches), thin (about finger-width at the stem end), tapering chilies commonly found in Indian and other ethnic grocery stores, sometimes identified as “finger hots” (though at Indian grocery stores, they are generally the only fresh green chilies on offer).
Depending on your preferences, you can add a little more or a little less water, to control the thickness of the batter, and therefore the thickness of the pancakes.