Real Food Encyclopedia | Millet

Millet – it’s not just for birds! How did a crop with an ancient provenance become synonymous with birdseed in the United States? And how did a plant once revered by the Chinese fall into culinary obscurity? Overall consumption is slipping worldwide, supplanted by industrialized wheat and corn, but with millet’s resistance to drought in an era of shifting climate, it’s a grain waiting to be rediscovered.

Millet is an umbrella for around 20 species of cereal grass from the Poaceae family, the seeds of which are harvested for grain. Various species include pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) and finger (Eleusine coracana). Foxtail (Setaria italica) and proso millet (Panicum miliaceum) are often grown for birdseed and livestock fodder.

As one of the oldest domesticated cereals, millet’s history stretches back to the Neolithic era. It’s mentioned in the Bible as one of the grains used to make bread. In ancient China, millet was one of five sacred grains and the Chinese believed that it was brought from the heavens by Houji or “Lord Millet,” a culture hero worshiped as the founding ancestor of farming. While we associate China with rice, millet may have been the grain of choice in ancient times.

In Europe, millet follows a story seen time and again with other crops. Once an important part of the daily diet during the Roman Empire and Middle Ages, it became synonymous with the poor and fell out of favor. Its use as livestock feed hasn’t helped either.

By extension, millet has a bit of an image problem in the United States. You’ve seen millet at the local pet store, but maybe not the supermarket. While the cereal is primarily grown for animal feed in the US, in many parts of the developing world, especially in Africa, it’s a dietary staple and a main source of protein and energy. To this day millet ranks globally as the sixth most important grain after corn, rice, wheat, barley and sorghum.

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Fun Facts about Millet:

  • The most commonly grown variety is pearl millet, whose seed grows in cattail-like stalks. Other species of the cereal, referred to as minor millets, include finger, foxtail and barnyard (Echinochloa utilis). In India, finger millet is known as ragi, which is milled into a flour used in dosa and roti flatbreads.
  • Although sorghum and teff (a grass native to Ethiopia) are often lumped in the same category with millet, they are separate cereals.
  • The hulls of millet seed can be used to make filling for organic pillows.
  • In Macedonian folklore, if you suspect a recently deceased villager of being a vampire, first unearth the corpse, scald it with boiling water and stick a nail through its navel. After the body is back in the grave, scatter millet seeds around. The reanimated corpse will “waste his time in picking up the grains of millet and be thus overtaken by dawn.

What to Look for When Buying Millet

Millet, known for its small round seeds, comes in white, yellow and red varieties. You will likely find whole grain pearl millet in health food or organic grocery stores.

Sustainability of Millet

Water and Millet

According to waterfootprint.org, a pound of millet takes 538 gallons of water to produce — a higher water footprint than wheat, which uses 219 gallons per pound. Yet, curiously, millet is known for its resistance to drought. Apparently, there are three types of water — blue, green and gray — that go into calculating a water footprint. Grown in arid regions like Africa and India, millet relies more on rainfall or “green” water, giving it a higher footprint than a crop that gets more irrigation, which accounts for “blue” water use. While irrigation can improve water use efficiency and increase yields, it can be problematic when that water is not available in dry places. Even though millet has a higher footprint, the grain is hardier and its use of water is far more efficient and thus sustainable in arid lands than wheat. Plus, millet’s overall water footprint could be lowered by using farming techniques that use rainfall more efficiently.

Pesticides and Millet

Millet is also generally grown without chemical pesticides and has a long tradition of sustainable farming practices in places like India, where a recent government push to use pesticides and chemical fertilizers in rural communities has met with deep resistance. It’s a bit of a hot topic in India, where some are championing a return to millet, a traditional food source that has fallen into obscurity after decades of shortsighted agricultural and environmental policies.

Millet Seasonality

Millet is a warm season grass and is harvested in the late summer. Once milled, the grain is available all year round.

Millet and Geography

Most of the millet grown for the human consumption in the US comes from Colorado. Other millet producing states include Nebraska and South Dakota. On a worldwide scale, India produces the most millet, followed by Nigeria and Niger.

Eating Millet

Storing Millet

At room temperature, millet will keep in a sealed, dry container for a year or so. If you want your grain to last longer, you can store alternatively in the refrigerator.

Cooking with Millet

Pro Tip: To get more flavor out of millet, toast the seeds lightly in a skillet for 4-5 minutes until golden brown. Then cook as desired. A 2:1 water to millet ratio will get you a quinoa-like consistency. For porridge, use a 3:1 ratio and stir often. Season as needed.

Millet is a versatile grain and a nutritious substitution for rice or quinoa. It can be cooked into porridge, served like polenta, or turned into gluten-free pancakes. And in India, as mentioned previously, millet flour is a key ingredient in many traditional flatbreads.

Millet also has a long history of being fermented or distilled into alcohol. In Africa, malted millet is brewed into a beer known variously as kaffir beer or bantu beer. Over in Nepal and Tibet, raksi is a traditional liquor distilled from millet.

Millet Nutrition

Rich in B vitamins like niacin and thiamine, millet is a nutrient dense alternative to rice. One cup of cooked millet contains 12 percent of the recommended daily allowance of protein and is loaded with minerals manganese and phosphorous. Millet is also low glycemic and gluten-free.