Does it surprise you to discover millet in China where rice is king? Until middle of the Nineteenth Century, China discouraged the people from the West from entering the country. Only a few traders saw the southern part of China where there is ample rainfall and rice grew abundantly. Those early traders assumed that all of China feasted on rice.
The drier climate of northern China was ideal for growing millet that thrived well on limited rainfall. The warrior farmers of the north western highlands valued millet so highly that in preparation of the long, severe winters, they brought the grain indoors.
Millet was considered one of the five sacred crops by the ancient Chinese. In one of the earliest recorded writings, Fan Shen Chih Shu in approximately 2800 BCE, gives directions for the growing and storing of the sacred grain. If you lived during the Han period, you would have enjoyed millet wine, which was actually a more popular beverage at that time than China's native cup of tea.
Mention of millet along with rice, broom-corn and wheat was even included in a third century Chinese poem called "The Summons of the Soul."
Renowned traveler Marco Polo wrote that during the reign of the Great Kahn, millet was plentiful and was prepared as a gruel cooked in milk rather than made into bread, which the Chinese had not yet developed.
During prehistoric times, people of Northern India were also cultivating millet that was used to prepare roti, an Indian flatbread still eaten today in Western India. Millet's travels continued throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa where it became a staple. Typical foods of the well-rounded Sumerian diet of about 2500 BCE included millet along with barley, wheat, chick peas, lentils, beans, onions, garlic, leeks, cucumbers, cress, mustard and lettuce. Millet was even mentioned in the Old Testament. The idyllic Hanging Gardens of Babylon were said to have included millet among their treasured plants.
Herodotus, the Greek historian known as the Father of History, described with reservation the millet plants growing in Assyria, the richest of the grain producing countries of that period. He said their millet grew so tall he was reluctant to give its height because no one would believe him.
Through trading with Eritrea and Somalia circa 3000 BCE, the early Egyptians learned from the Africans how to cultivate millet which would grow well in the dry Sahara, where wheat and barley were unable to thrive. The Moors, too, cultivated millet when they discovered that it would sprout during monsoon season. Millet, a fast-growing grain, could be harvested in about 45 to 65 days.
Egypt is possibly the country where the earliest techniques for raised bread were developed. The Egyptians were skillful at brewing ale which was made in the bakehouse. Between baking and brewing in the same room, wild yeasts were plentiful and added lightness to their millet breads. Soon they substituted ale for the water and their bread doughs were even lighter. The Greeks and the Italians took up the practice with an interesting variation, using wine instead of ale. Their millet breadmaking began by soaking the grains in grape juice. Next they formed a dough which was then kneaded and left to ferment before baking.
Millet was cultivated and cooked into a porridge in many European countries. The French adopted millet porridge long before the Romans arrived. In Northern Italy, in the area that is now Milan, millet was prepared into a porridge called puls. In Rome where millet was a familiar grain in everyday use, pulmentum was their staple porridge. In the fourth and fifth centuries in Rome a polenta-type porridge of millet was the food of the poor. Charlemagne of France had millet stowed to be used as a Lenten food approximately 800 CE.
Because millet stored exceptionally well, in past centuries it was not uncommon to stock the grain in case of famine. A variety known as finger millet, the longest-lasting, was kept as long as five years in the form of unthreshed heads.
With nature on the side of the farmer, birds and the winds allowed millet seed to spread easily. In 1801 a traveler to Botswana, Africa, observed a rather unique style of cultivation. Rather than separating their different grain and legume seeds, the natives combined their abundant millet seeds with other grains and legumes and planted them in a rather helter skelter fashion. When the plants matured, they were harvested all together and stored in a grainery. The combined grains and legumes were then eaten in a porridge which was boiled in milk.
Food writer Waverly Root says that if you have trouble with crab grass on your lawn, forget the lawn, cultivate the crab grass, and when and if it produces seed, eat the little grains which are actually a variety of pearl millet.
Throughout the world there are 6,000 varieties of millet whose grains vary in color from pale yellow, to gray, white, and red. Teff, the native grain of Ethiopia that is used in making a flatbread called injera, is actually a variety of millet.
Most of the millet grown in this country is fed to animals and packaged for bird seed. Pearl millet is the variety grown for human consumption.
You'll benefit from plenty of protein when you include millet in your diet. Depending on the variety, millet's protein content is very close to that of wheat, with a half-cup serving, cooked, providing 4.2 grams. One-half cup raw millet contains 11 grams of protein.
Millet is rich in B vitamins, especially niacin, B6, and folacin and offers calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and zinc. Since millet contains no gluten, it cannot rise to form a light bread. For a raised bread, it's best to combine it with wheat. Used alone, it's ideal for making flatbread.
The only grain that retains its alkaline nature when cooked, millet is ideal for those who are allergic to wheat and gluten
Millet can be used in many dishes in place of buckwheat, rice, or quinoa. It makes a tasty, light breakfast cereal, works well in vegetable loaves, gives extra body to soups or stews, and used raw, adds delightful, crunchy texture to muffins and quickbreads.
STORING: Store millet at room temperature in an air-tight container for up to a month. For longer storage, it should be refrigerated.
PREPARATION: All grains should be washed before cooking. Because millet absorbs water rapidly, wash the grains briefly. Measure the quantity you are planning to cook before washing.
1 cup raw millet yields 3 cups cooked. When measuring, use 3 1/2 parts liquid to 1 part millet. For 1 cup raw millet, add 1 t. salt.
COOKING: Because all pearl millet is not the same, cooking times may vary. Millet cooks up to make a fluffy, delicate-tasting grain that is best enjoyed warm. When cold it tends to become hard, dry, and lumpy.
Enjoy millet often with this easy-to-prepare recipe. Serve with a crisp tossed salad, steamed vegetables, and whole grain bread.