Every day, it was the same routine without exception. The school bell rang and there was no sign of me. My mother screamed her heart out while calling my nickname: “Tumpaaaa…….Tumpaaaaa….” with no response from me. Suddenly one of our neighbor aunts would say “Didi, Tumpa is hiding here”. I heard my Maa calling my name but always pretended that I didn’t. Sooner or later she would come and drag me home, often spanking my butt on the way back. She would wash my dirty feet, put fresh clothes on me, give me my aluminum suitcase and send me to the local school. The school was a ‘paathshala’ which literally means a place to study (mainly for underprivileged kids). There were two rooms with only 10-12 students in each room. One year was spent in the classroom next to the pond and the next year students were promoted to the other room, that’s pretty much all there was to it. There was no graduation ceremony, no chairs, no table, nothing. We took our own individual floor mats (aashon) everyday to sit on. It was more of a fun place than an actual education. All the kids there were way below the poverty level. There was only one girl whom I still clearly remember who was from a middle-class (not rich) family, she was one of the teachers’ daughters. She looked very different from the rest of us and wore nicer clothes.
Once every week it was special for me because we were given midday snacks. One week it was boiled and salted Bengal gram and the next week it would be followed by two slices of plain white bread. Every week I looked forward to that day. I still remember the taste, I can still feel the pieces of bread in my hands. I always feared that if I went home with the food, I might have to share them with Maa, so I stopped midway while going home and finished all of it (in retrospect, how selfish of me). I formed tiny balls from the inside of the white breads and then ate them one at a time, which was my own little game with myself. White bread was rare in my house. I am sure other kids were also looked forward to those days as bread other than Indian rotis were a luxury to them and the concept of free food was exciting.
India, being a developing country, many kids go to bed hungry. They simply cannot afford to go to school and are probably too malnourished anyhow. To address the problem, the Indian government started a midday meal scheme. Unfortunately, the scheme is suffering as the demon of corruption is grabbing it with all its power and trying to paralyze the system. As the focus was on nutritionally balanced food, different whole grains were incorporated into the meals. Millet being a cheap source of healthy carbohydrates and fiber was served in different forms. Apart from the corruption issue, there is another big problem coming into play. As the West is becoming more and more aware of the health benefits of ancient grains, like many other countries, India is exporting a substantial amount of millet to the west. Coupled with the export issue, millet is also considered to be inferior compared to rice and wheat in India, so farmers refuse to grow them. They don’t profit as much as they do growing and selling rice or wheat. Hence, the problem of foodgrain availability is increasing, midday meals are encountering hurdles and kids for whom these meals were the sole incentive to go to school are dropping out in thousands. For many of these kids, that midday meal is their only meal of the day, but ironically that is also being taken away. Knowingly or unknowingly we are contributing to a larger problem but there is so little we can do about it.
Kaoner chaal also known as foxtail millet is one such ancient grain that has almost dropped off the modern Indian food radar. It’s highly nutritious and a cheaper, healthier alternative to rice and wheat. The close relative found in the US is barnyard millet (or Sama ka Chawal/Vrat ka Chawal as it is known in India). You should try the pudding recipe below before this grain too becomes affordable only for the rich. It’s delicious and taste similar yet different to a regular rice pudding.
Evaporated milk: one 18 fl.oz. can/354 ml.
Whole milk: Same amount as evaporated milk/18fl oz.
Brown sugar: (can be substituted by gur/jaggery) ¾ cup (start with ½ cup and gradually increase according to your taste)
Kaoner chaal/Foxtail millet/barnyard millet: ½ cup
Cardamom: 2 nos.
Bay leaves: 2 nos.
Salt: One tiny pinch
Cashews: a small handful, somewhat broken.
- Wash the millet several times and then soak it in water.
- Mix the evaporated milk and the whole milk and start boiling it. (you can use all whole milk or substitute with half n half too). Once the milk comes to a boil, reduce the flame to medium. Add the bay leaves and the cardamom (break them slightly). Keep stirring frequently otherwise the milk will stick to the bottom. Keep an eye on the milk to avoid boiling over.
- Once the milk is reduced to almost half, drain the millets and then add them to the milk. Mix well and let it cook on medium flame.
- After the millets are properly cooked, add the sugar and the salt. Let the sugar melt and taste. If you need more sugar, add more. Add the broken cashews and turn off the heat.
PS: The millets soak a substantial amount of liquid, so keep it a bit more liquidy than you want. If it thickens too much after cooling, boil a little bit of milk and add it to the pudding. The pudding will taste a little bit more sweet when at room temp., so add sugar accordingly.