Millets on the Holi menu in Suriname

The Indian Embassy in Suriname hosted Holi at its Swami Vivekananda Cultural Centre (SVCC) in a rather unique way with an exhibition about millet, a candidly forgotten super food with wide varieties.

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Holi celebration in Suriname

By Aashna Kanhai 

As traditions get diluted, Holi is a festival that Persons of Indian Origin (PIO’s) have conserved so well that burning Holika in Suriname is always preceded by Hindu rituals, yet the festival has achieved a declared national holiday and is being celebrated by all, including non-PIO’s.

The Indian Embassy in Suriname hosted Holi at its Swami Vivekananda Cultural Centre (SVCC) in a rather unique way with an exhibition about millet, a candidly forgotten super food with wide varieties.

Anjana, the Kathak teacher, and her students mesmerized the audience consisting of three ministers and the President of Suriname, amongst others. During my diplomatic tenure in India, I witnessed many features of India’s soft power diplomacy, and knowing the warm relations between India and Suriname, it was not so strange to see the President of my country inaugurating the exhibition on millets. Obviously, I was a bit surprised, since I had never heard of any millet-containing staple food item in my part of the world, while my Indian ancestors passed on masala recipes and roti varieties, I only found sabudana porridge in my grandmother’s heritage as I must add that this Pearl millet, is hardly available here.

Indian Ambassador, Dr Shankar Balachandran, wisely mentioned that millets are recognized by the United Nations in relation to four Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) and he listed the nutritional value, enticing the audience into more curiosity and mine to the level of blunt astonishment as to why my ancestors did not carry forward the traditional millet menu.

Being a Dutch colony, Suriname was not only a final destination for as many as 34.000 Indian indentured laborers who were shipped between 1873-1917 but also for as many indentured laborers from Indonesia, then another Dutch colony. The Indonesians brought along rice, a nowadays established staple food in Suriname. Though I usually boast about PIO’s conserving their roots, we cannot be blamed for forgetting about super nutritional millets, as our ancestors could not grow this crop, since the tropical climate and damp soil of Suriname may not have allowed it to be cultivated on a larger scale.

Perhaps, the Indian indentured laborers were happier consuming rice, a crop more expensive and exclusive compared to millets and the desire for millets slowly disappeared.  Or perhaps the then-known variations would not prove to be viable in Suriname as they would be in India? As if it was raining questions in my head, the Indian ambassador conveyed the initiative to prospect millet cultivation in Suriname, with the support of the Indian Government.

There we go, I thought, there is scope for exploring millet variations on my soil and as a dormant diplomat, I instantly started dreaming of a joint program between India and my country, in the shadow of trade enhancement. This year we celebrate 150 years of Indian arrival in Suriname, so if we can pledge to re-engage our menu with millets, an ancestral legacy may revive and modern SDG’s will be achieved through retro culinary moves of PIO’s in the Caribbean.

As the event progressed, after the official speeches, I noticed a modern sabudana salad on the buffet, which of course I relished after I got an old school and pleasant gulaal dressing by fellow audience members while lively Holi songs from recent Bollywood movies were served. This Holi was more than gulaal, mithai, and masti. This Holi has reconnected me with a nutritional element of my Indian ancestors, wandered me back to nani’s sabudana porridge, and guided me to a more millet-containing menu. Shubh Holi!   

The author is a former ambassador of Suriname to India.

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First published on: 10-03-2023 at 09:00 IST