Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: 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.

A Brief History

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. If you're like me, you've seen millet at the local pet store, 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.

Factual Nibbles

  • The word millet derives from the Roman word milium.
  • 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. Who knew!
  • 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 naval. 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." Yeah, I'm a bit stumped by this one too.

Cultivation

Growing up to six feet in height, millet is an annual grass that takes well to poor or acidic soil as well as dry, hot weather. It should be planted in well drained rows, like corn. Millet is ready to harvest in about two to three months and the hulls of its seeds need to be removed before it is digestible. Notoriously labor intensive, it takes about an hour of pounding the seed by hand to produce a kilogram of millet flour.

The majority of millet grown in the US is for forage, although some farms are experimenting with millet for consumers as the market seeks out alternatives to wheat. While known for its tolerance to drought, some US farmers lost as much as 80 percent of their crop in 2012, done in by exceedingly hot and dry conditions. Still, as demand for gluten-free foods grow, millet is being tapped as a cheaper alternative to quinoa.

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.

Seasonality

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

Environmental impact

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. So what's the deal? According to my colleague, Kai Olson-Sawyer, 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.

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.

Characteristics

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.

Nutrition and effects on the body

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.

What to Do with It

Millet is a versatile grain and a nutritious substitution for rice or quinoa.

Cooking

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.

Storage

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.

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.

Recipe

This is an adaptation of a Bon Appétit recipe that I couldn’t stop tinkering with. (Actually it’s entirely possible that I made the recipe wrong, adding more millet than called for, but we'll label this as a delicious mistake.) First, the millet batter, minus the sesame seed oil and scallions, would make for an intriguing gluten-free alternative to breakfast pancakes. Second, I’m super lazy when it comes to extra steps in the kitchen like toasting sesame seeds so I dropped them from the original recipe. I’m also a fan of just sticking everything in one pot. Regardless, I couldn’t stop eating these scallion pancakes as they cooled and drained on a paper towel. They might have not looked like the Bon Appétit photo, but were tasty nevertheless.

Serves 4 as a side dish or appetizer.

Millet-Scallion Pancakes

Ingredients:

Pancakes
1 cup uncooked millet
2 cups water
6 scallions, thinly sliced
2 large eggs
6 tablespoons buttermilk
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (I use organic safflower)
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more

Sauce
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar (or plum vinegar)
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sliced scallions

Equipment
A cast iron pan is optimal, but a nonstick pan will work. Also, line a plate with a paper towel to drain extra oil from pancakes.

Method:

1. Combine sauce ingredients in a bowl and set aside. If you want it spicy, add sriracha as needed.

2. In a medium sized pot with lid, bring 2 cups of water to boil. Add 1 cup millet and stir. Once the water begins to boil again, reduce to low flame and cover for 20 minutes. After that time, check if it needs more cooking time. The millet should be the consistency of lumpy couscous. If there is too much liquid, the pancakes will fall apart during cooking. If the millet is ready, give it a good stir. Remove from heat.

3. In the same pot (again, because I’m lazy), add buttermilk, cornstarch, eggs, sesame oil, salt and scallions. Stir until it forms a thick yet spreadable batter. Millet also is pretty bland without salt, so if you’re not grossed out by raw eggs, give the batter a quick taste and add salt if it needs more.

4. In a well-seasoned cast iron pan, heat oil over medium high heat until smoking. Spoon batter into pan so it forms an even circle about a half inch thick. Cook until golden and crispy on one side. Using a wide spatula, flip and cook the other side. When done, drain on a paper towel lined plate. Serve warm with sauce on the side.

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