(mainly Panicum sp. – Family Gramineae)
Millet is another wonderful grain lost on Westerners. Most feed it to their birds or other animals, but would never eat it themselves; yet millet is, and has been, a staple grain for most of the world’s population. There are some who believe it was one of the first grains to be cultivated during the Neolithic era. The first written record of it goes back to China about 2,800 BCE. Grown in Gaul, millet was also eaten by the Sumerians, Etruscans, and the Romans. For centuries in northern China, Korea, and Japan, it served as an alternative for rice, and still is the primary grain for more than one-third of the population in the Orient, including the remote areas of the Himalayas, and remains a major crop in the drier areas of India.
Millet is the perfect grain for drought-stricken areas. It can lie dormant for weeks and then, suddenly, with the passing rains, spring to life and be ready for harvest in just forty-five days. It also keeps well in storage and is resistant to rot and insects. If kept dry, it will stay in storage for as long as five years. However, it just might be kept longer. A botanist in Japan found some millet seed at an archaeological dig that he dated to 1,500 years ago. It had kept dry in well-drained volcanic soil for all that time, and when the seeds were planted, they promptly sprouted and produced buds.
Millet normally grows from one to four feet in height, but pearl millet can reach heights of ten feet or more. A type of pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) has become the staple food for millions of people in Africa and India who live on the desert fringes or on very arid lands. This type gives very good yields in some of the driest and most inhospitable regions in their exhausted and nutrient-poor soils. These cereal grains are generally ground into flour for making into flat breads or eaten whole. In the north of Africa, millet is made into a porridge called “tuo zaafi”, while the people of the Sahara use it to make a flatbread called “taguella”. For many years, food writers included millet as the key ingredient for the Ethiopian bread “injera”, but now only about 5% of all injera is made from millet. Most utilize a grain that closely resembles millet, called teff.
Depending on the type, millet seedheads may vary considerably in size, appearance, and flavour – which ranges from thoroughly palatable to equally unpleasant. Except for bulrush millet, all remain enclosed in hulls after threshing. Some varieties furnish a small-hulled fruit, which is a wholesome and palatable form of food. In Europe and in America, it is known as “Crab Grass”. Millet’s very tiny seeds grow on what looks like miniature ears of corn. Before the discovery of Zea mays, or New World corn, millet was referred to as such. Today, “teff” is sometimes regarded as an Ethiopian millet, and a type of sorghum grown in China is also occasionally classified as a variety of millet. Another collection of grasses known as millet is “finger millet” (Eleusine coracana), a staple of Eastern and Central Africa, and believed to have been domesticated in the northeastern parts of that continent. It can be stored without deterioration for up to ten years and is largely resistant to weevil attack. Finger millet is usually eaten as a porridge or ground into flour for making large flat breads. India and China are now the chief producers for international trade.
Millet is one of the most nutritious and easily digested of all grains; and it is high in starch, making it a good high energy food. However, like other grains, it is low in calcium, Vitamins A, C, D, and B12, but high in phosphorus, other B vitamins, and iron – which is higher in millet than any other grain with the exception of amaranth and quinoa (not members of the Grass Family). Millet is very rich in amino acids. The protein content may vary from 5-20%, but generally averages 10-12%. Millet is considered superior to wheat because its proteins are more easily digested, despite remaining low in lysine. Ideally, it can be combined with a legume or a food that is high in lysine (an essential amino acid) to make the dish a complete protein. Millet is also one of two alkaline grains (the other is buckwheat), making it a soothing choice for those with ulcers or colitis.
Kinds of millet are as follows:
Common, hog, Indian, or corn millet, broomcorn, proso (Russia): (Panicum miliaceum) It is believed to have originated in India, but has been cultivated since prehistoric times. It spread through Asia to China, where it soon became one of the most sacred grains, although holding a lower place than rice. Common millet arrived in Europe before 2000 BCE and was used mainly for porridge and rough, unleaved bread.
Finger, birdsfoot, African millet, ragi (India): (Eleusine coracana) It consists of five spikes that radiate like fingers in the head and sometimes in a curving manner from a central point. It probably originated in East Africa and taken to India around 1000 BCE, being still an important food crop in both places. It has the best storage properties of all the millets. Ragi flour is made into the leavened pancakes called ‘dosa’ and the thinner, unleavened ‘roti’. Batloo is a flat millet bread cooked on a griddle and marked with depressions made by the fingers. Another popular Indian bread is ‘dhebra’, which also has chickpea flour and wheat flour added for a lighter texture and flavour.
Foxtail: (Setaria italica or S. chaetochia) It originated in Asia and so named because of its resemblance to the tail of a fox, although minus the white tip. Known to the Swiss Lake Dwellers of the Stone Age, this species shares its history with the common millet, but grows better in warmer regions. Introduced to the US in 1849, it is the most common species grown for cattle food. In Russia, it is grown to make beer, and in Britain, for bird seed. Other countries wisely use it to feed their human population. Setaria ketchevelli is found in both Mongolia and Georgia (Gruzhia).
Japanese barnyard millet, shanwa (Japan), kheri (India): (Echinochioa frumentacea or Panicum crus-galli) It is cultivated in warm regions for use as food or forage. In Japan and Korea, the grain is ground into meal and made into porridge. In America, it is used to feed animals.
Little millet: (Panicum miliare) It is grown mainly in India. Its main virtues are the ability to produce moderate yields on very poor soils and to withstand both drought and water logging better than most other crops.
Pearl, bulrush, cattail millet, spiked millet, bajra (India): (Pennisetum typhoideum) It is a tall, annual grass of tropical Asia and Africa growing as high as nine feet. It is cultivated mainly for its seeds, which are used as a cereal food like rice or pounded into a flour or paste to make breads. It probably originated in Africa and taken to India around 1000 BCE, where it still provides an important food supply in some of the driest areas of India and Pakistan, although it is considered inferior to the finger millet. Penisetum glauchim is “bajri” millet, native to India. Pearl millet consists of the white-seeded varieties.
Hungry rice (Digitaria exilis) It is a genuine millet, and not a type of rice. It is grown in the drier parts of West Africa as is another similar species, D. iburua.
Forms of millet are as follows:
Whole grain: It is always hulled as the outer layer is indigestible. What is left is the tiny golden seed.
Meal: It is a coarsely-ground form used in baking and cereals. It can be purchased already prepared; or it can be made at home from whole millet, using a home mill or a coffee grinder.
Flour: It is a much finer grind than the meal. Since it contains no gluten, it should be combined with other flours that do have gluten; but it actually does quite well on its own in pancakes and similar items.
Puffed: It can be used in the same manner as other puffed grains.