Red millet, finger millet, ragi, kodo, and keppai are all names of an annual plant grown as a cereal across Africa and Asia. Red millet was originally a native of the Ethiopian highlands of Africa but has been cultivated in India since the Iron Age. This hardy plant thrives in a variety of climates and can be made into a wide range of nutritious foodstuffs and alcoholic beverages.
|Eleusine coracana or red millet growing in the neighbors' field|
Red millet or Eleusine coracana is called kodo or ragi in here in Nepal. It is usually planted during the arid Fall and Winter after the Monsoon season in Nepal. It is often interplanted with pigeon peas or maize as you see in the above photo of my neighbor's field. Red millet is extremely pest resistant and once harvested the seeds store nearly indefinitely. Freedom from moulds or insects and long storage capacity make red millet an important crop in risk-avoidance strategies for Third World farming communities. With a 1 tonne per hectare yield, it has the highest productivity among millets grown in the world. The straw from red millet can be also used as animal fodder.
Red millet is a nutritious source of calcium, iron, fiber, and the essential amino acid methionine. Methionine is often lacking in the diets of vegetarians and cultures who subsist on starchy staples such as rice and maize. As an essential amino acid methionine is important in angiogenesis, the growth of new blood vessels. Red millet's high fiber content and low glycemic index score make it an excellent choice for those suffering diabetes too. It is also easily digestible and gluten-free.
Dhido is a traditional food in some areas of Nepal made from a thick paste of boiled red millet flour. You will find dhido eaten as a staple in areas of the Himalayas where the altitude and aridity do not allow the cultivation of wheat or rice. It is a lot like mush or polenta with a bit of a nutty flavor. Dhido is usually eaten with a dollop of butter or ghee accompanied by pickles, chutneys, curried vegetables and yogurt. It is served steaming hot as it hardens upon setting. To eat it you tear off bits by hand and dip it into one of the tasty sides served alongside.
|Kodo ko Roti|
Red millet is also eaten as a pancake like flat bread called kodo ko roti. The millet flour is mixed into a simple batter with water and a pinch of sugar. The batter is then fried in a bit of ghee. Kodo ko roti is usually served with a variety of pickles, chutneys, and dal. To eat kodo ko roti one tears off a piece of the roti and uses it to scoop up the condiment of choice.
Nepalis are avid home brewers and distillers. Red millet is used to make a variety of alcoholic beverages. In the photo above you see an earthenware and copper still with firewood underneath it ready for use. There are many similar types of stills in various sizes in different communities across Nepal. Earthenware is preferred to for the fermentation process. Copper is preferred for distilling since it removes sulfur-based compounds from the alcohol that would make it unpleasant to drink.
Rakshi is a traditional distilled alcoholic drink made from red millet or rice in Nepal and Tibet. It is clear like vodka and is reputed to taste much like Japanese sake. Rakshi is not aged before consumption and is usually stored and sold in plastic fuel containers as you see in the above photo. In 2011 Rakshi was deemed by CNN to be of the world's 50 most delicious drinks and was described thusly, "Made from millet or rice, Rakshi is strong on the nose and sends a burning sensation straight down your throat that resolves itself into a surprisingly smooth, velvety sensation. Nepalese drink this home brew to celebrate festivals, though some think that the prized drink itself is the reason to celebrate."
|Newari lady in Kathmandu pouring rakshi from an anti (brass pitcher) into a pala (small clay bowl) for drinking|
Rakshi is often served during special occasions in Nepal. The alcoholic drink is poured from a great height via a brass pitcher with a small spout making an entertaining spectacle. This requires an expert hand and is an an art in itself.
|Tongba containing chhaang with a perforated bamboo straw|
Chhaang is a fermented beer often made from red millet in Nepal and Tibet. To drink chaang a fermented mash of red millet is first placed in a special drinking vessel called a tongba as you see in the above photo. Hot water is then poured into the tongba and left to steep for about five minutes. A fine bamboo straw with a perforated filter tip is then used slurp up the diluted alcohol out of the fermented mash. Hot water is replenished in the tongba until the all alcohol has been extracted from the mash.
Nutritionally, ecologically, and gastronomically, red millet is a truly versatile grain that is making a comeback in South Asian cuisines. During colonial times red millet was considered a coarse grain suitable only for the laboring classes. Nowadays, red millet is touted as a fashionable and healthy 'super food.' One can find all sorts of delicious preparations of red millet such as laddoos, biscuits, halva, and pakora all across the Indian subcontinent. (As well as alcoholic beverages.)