Food is perhaps not the first thing you associate with Navratri — after all, fasting, abstaining from staples like onion, garlic and cereals, and observing satvik principles for whatever one consumes, is so much a part of the nine festive days. You might associate Navratri instead with the different colours to be worn on each of its days, or certain prayers and rituals. But Navratri food, despite its many prescriptions and limitations can be rich, varied — and most importantly, delicious as well. 

Among the repertoire of Navratri dishes is samak ke chawal pulao. Some people also call it “vrat ke chawal”, but both are a misnomer as the main ingredient is not rice but millet. More specifically, barnyard millet. 

Millets are among the oldest foodgrains known to humankind, and were a vital part of our diets until rice and wheat took over. They’re thought of as “famine crops” — millets aren’t as sensitive to weather, soil and water conditions as rice, and grow abundantly and in a short duration. They’re also highly nutritious. 

For instance, on a day when you’re observing a fast, the samak rice pulao (or even upma) is a quick, gluten-free and wholesome meal that makes you feel full, faster. The similarity of barnyard millet to rice satiates any cravings for your comfort food. The grains cook separately, which means the pulao or upma will have a pleasing texture and appearance.

Barnyard millet was domesticated in Japan, and later cultivated in India, China and Korea as well. In India, it is locally called sanwa, samak, oodhalu, odalu, kuthiravali or kavadapullu. A suggestion of how millets are viewed as “poor man’s food” or “peasant’s food” is seen in a commonly narrated folktale: 

A king out on a hunt chanced across a farmer’s daughter as she walked through the woods. She was so beautiful that the king was instantly smitten and wanted to make her his wife. He approached the woman and her father, and the marriage was conducted with due ceremony. All believed that their union would be a happy one. 

Within months of her marriage, however, the queen dropped into a strange melancholy that lasted several days. Mainly, it affected her appetite. She refused all of the rich foods and delicate morsels that the royal kitchen would whip up to entice her to partake in a proper meal. The king was worried and pressed his beloved for the reason behind her malaise. But the queen herself could not understand what it was that afflicted her, or why she had lost any taste for food. 

Then, a royal physician who had been monitoring the queen’s health suggested that the king try one recourse. On the king’s instructions, the chefs in the royal kitchen procured the millet that the queen had been used to eating at her father’s home. These they pounded into flour and made into coarse breads. 

When the queen saw the repast, for the first time in days, she felt the pangs of hunger. Putting aside all the graces, she feasted on the millet bread until she was full. The physician smiled, and told the king to ensure that his wife had enough of the millets she had been used to, in her diet.

Not everyone who celebrates Navratri is as devoted to millets as the queen in the folk tale. But during these festive days, appreciation for this substitute “rice” — barnyard millet — surges. As it should, for something that keeps us well-fed even during a fast.

Samak Rice Idli

Makes 4 servings. 

Total time: 40 mins.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup samak rice, soaked for two hours
  • ½ cup thick yoghurt
  • 1 tsp unsweetened desiccated coconut
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp roasted cumin seeds 
  • ½ tsp crushed red chilli flakes
  • 2 tsp finely chopped carrots 
  • ½ tsp citric acid
  • ½ tsp baking powder 
  • Salt to taste (sendha namak)
  • Oil to grease idli moulds

Method:

  • Drain the soaked rice and transfer to a food processor. Add coconut, yoghurt, lemon juice, carrots and spices into the blender and grind to a smooth paste.
  • Take water in a steamer pot/pan. Lightly grease the idli moulds. Add the citric acid and baking powder to the batter. Whisk to combine. Pour it into the moulds, then place in the steamer.
  • Cover the steaming vessel with a lid, and let the idlis cook for 6-8 mins. Once done, demould and let the idlis cool. Serve with coconut chutney.