Prized for its wellness properties today, here’s how the Jaat farmer’s staple became the superfood valued by farmers, traders, warriors, and now chefs too.
Circa 1450: It had been almost a decade for Rao Jodha living in exile, trying hard to earn back his fort in Mandore. But with each of his failed attempts, hope was now a distant dream.
Unbeknownst to Rao, things were about to change, with a dish acting as catalyst. As the story goes, following one such defeat, Rao, hungry and tired, was lost in the desert when he came across a Jaat house and asked for something to eat. The woman offered him a bowl of porridge with a dollop of warm ghee poured in the middle.
Exhausted and famished, Rao went directly for the warm ghee and burnt his fingers. The Jaat-ni, admonished him saying, “Don’t behave like Rao Jodha”. Taken aback, the emperor in exile looked up in confusion when the lady smiled and explained, “The Mandore fort is like the hot ghee in the middle, ironclad, and hence the reason for his defeat.” Instead, she shared that the king should start earning back his kingdom from the side, where it is relatively less hot and easier to penetrate. That was all the king needed to hear.
For Warriors And Beyond
Three years later, Rao Jodha had won back not only the areas around, but Mandore itself. The dish, which came as a life’s big lesson to him, was Bajra Ghaat.
Or at least, the first iterations of what’s now the famous Bajra Khichdi, according to Jodha dynasty scion Chef Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef ITC Grand Bharat.
“The dish that eventually went on to become one of the legacy dishes of our gharana was called Bajre Ka Soyeta. It’s a rich, velvety yet rustic treat that was part of not just the royal kitchen, but also of the military kitchen. In fact, it was one of the few dishes that soldiers had before heading to the battlefield for two reasons. One, of course, was the association with the dish; and the other was the far-reaching properties of this old grain. A bowl of bajra could keep you full and active for a long time, and that too without the need for water. The latter was significant back in the day when battles often happened during the peak hours of the day, and carrying water along with all the armoury seemed a tough task,” he explains.
He adds, “Over the years, bajra, a short duration crop that was drought tolerant, became a staple. Partly thanks to the earthy taste that took on the spice well, and partly because of the soldiers, who back in the day were all Jats. The community eventually became instrumental in spreading their love for it across the country with Bajra Khichdi.”
Part Of The Food Habit
In Rajasthan, continues Chef Jodha, “Bajra soon rose to become a food staple. It took on many varied forms including rotla that was served with Junglee Maas, and later with aloo and other vegetables as well. At our homes though, it is the khichdi – both sweet and savoury – that still holds the culinary fort. Especially around seasonal changes like monsoon and winters, where the warmth of bajra helps the body fight against the vagaries of seasonal changes.”
Chef Jodha has grown on a healthy collection of bajra dishes and has extensively researched it in association with Mehrangarh Museum. Today, he uses the khichdi as the first introduction to traditional Rajasthani food. There is something very calming about a well-made bajra khichdi, explains the Jodha scion. “It works like a salve for the stomach, no matter how delicate it is. And this is the best introduction to rustic food culture, he concludes.”
Chef Manish Mehrotra, Culinary Director, Indian Accent, concurs. His introduction to bajra was at a young age much like Chef Jodha. But the charm of this old-world grain began as a chef.
He recalls, “It wasn’t a very prominent part of our food back in the day, but it was there as one of the winter treats that my mother would make and give it to us with jaggery to eat. I remember enjoying the bite – you really had to chew well as these rotis would be thicker than that of wheat, yet it had this crumbly feeling of a good bati. Just one thick roti was enough to fill you up with enough horsepower to play. And that was my first introduction to Bajra, the dehati variety that grew in and around Bihar.”
From Old-World To New
He continues, “When we started Indian Accent and got these samples from across the country, bajra was something that caught my attention. And given that balmy history and whatever little I have had during my travels as a chef, we created one of our signature and most popular dishes called the Bajra Parmesan Khichdi. Initially, we served it with braised lamb, which was my ode to the warrior clan of the yore. But as people deviated towards the earthy-umami-ness of the dish, it became standalone feature of not only our tasting menus but also of the outdoor catering as well.”
Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, Founder, Fabrica By Saby, had his first tryst with bajra when he started working with the National Museum, creating a pop-up based on the food habits of the Indus dwellers.
“The sheer varieties of bajra that we had even back then were mind-boggling. Determined by the area it grew in, each bajra had its own characteristic earthiness, size, and taste. Of course, those that grew in the arid regions were hardy and were preferred for the sturdy and satiating nature in those days. But nutritive composition and its easy farming were one of the reasons that bajra remained one of the core grains for a long time. It was also the cooking that was in sync with the lifestyle there. Bajra took an insane amount of water, after soaking, and time to cook. Given that most dishes back in the day were functional, bajra could be thrown in with a few root vegetables like the junglee kand, which made for a delicious dinner or lunch when slow cooked. In fact, once cooked the grain could be soaked for an early morning fermented drink much like Mandia, and even be ground further to create this sticky pudding of the yore that was served with a bit of milk and honey or molasses.”
According to Chef Gorai, however, bajra’s best feature is as an accompaniment to meat. He says, “Much like the Ragi Mudde could be turned into these amazing ladoos (not necessarily sweet), the cakes too would become instant food for travellers.”
In fact, adds Chef Jodha, “Its [bajra’s] versatility, once it is brought to a pliable consistency through soaking and boiling, makes it an amazing ingredient that could be moulded into any form, and paired well with all forms of taste-making.”
That explains the pan-India popularity of this ancient grain, boasting 20+ varieties by the end of the Ancient era and almost 120 before the Green Revolution. “However, a significant factor of bajra acceptance across different cultures”, says Roopa Rajan N, Founder, Nutrisupa, “was also that Ayurveda considered this sturdy grain’s porridge beneficial for the body. Especially so during seasonal changes, when [the body] needs more magnesium, potassium, and prebiotic for the gut among other things, and categorises it as Trunadhanya or Kudhanya Varga for its sweet taste. The low GI index makes it ideal for managing a wide variety of lifestyle ailments arising for imbalance in insulin as well.”
The single downside, according to Rajan is, “that bajra has high anti-nutrients like phytates and oxalates – the former of which is found in certain lentils as well – and can be treated simply by soaking and boiling the grain.”
A Classic Upgrade
For Dhruv Oberoi, Head Chef, Olive Bar & Kitchen, adding bajra flour to their desserts is part of their good-for-you menu. Chef Oberoi’s introduction to bajra and its many new varieties happened while working beside eco-chefs like Chef Gorai and Chef Vikas Seth.
A fine example of his journey and what he considers an upgrade is the Olive monsoon special, Bajra Polenta Fries. Here, explains Chef Oberoi, “The corn polenta is replaced with housed-milled bajra. The process and recipe have been retained in the traditional way. The dish has been paired with a duxelle, that’s made with mushroom sourced from Northeast and accompanied with an aioli made with Himalayan garlic and chive puree.”
The superfood ability to upgrade a classic dish with more panache is what Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Zest too experienced when he worked with bajra and ragi at Healing Recipes, a wellness-based Chefs’ Retreat in Palakkad.
According to Chef Seth, it was thanks to the Punjabi Jaats that bajra became part of North Frontier cuisine. He adds, “It would generally make its presence felt only during winters’ and that too in villages. Bajra Roti however was the more standard fare of town-dwellers, who would have it with freshly churned ghee and jaggery, or lassi. It was a filling meal – very heavy. But the treat was so rare that it really didn’t register much until that day at the retreat when I had to work with roasted bajra flour.”
Chef Seth who had worked with Ragi before used the same technique to create tortillas with bajra and lentils to give it that softness of a dosa. He says those tacos later inspired quite a few interesting dishes in Zest, their bespoke catering arm.
For Chef Chirag Makwana, Head Chef, Toast & Tonic, the varieties of bajra coupled with the industry’s renewed interest in the ancient grain transformed into their signature dish called Bajra & Ricotta Gnudi. It’s served with creamed amaranth and spinach, local greens velouté, pine nuts and fried onions.
He says, “The Bajra Ricotta Gnudi is made up of bajra flour and ricotta. This earthy-umami combination gives the Italian classic an unconventional desi twist. It also turns it into a healthier and nutritious alternative without compromising on the taste. [That makes it a balanced meal, and low on carbs, making it ideal for diners.]”