Millet, queen of the cereal crops

By Carolyn Best

Millet has been cultivated so long, for more than 10,000 years, that some bird species have evolved an adapted beak to hull its husks, and the digestive systems of cattle have evolved to allow the processing of the hard, cellulose fibre that surrounds this fruit of small seeded grasses. The diversities of millet are legion; the most ancient of grains exists in many varieties. Waverley Root, in his book Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World, describes millet as “the hardiest of cereals, capable of fending for itself in the wild state; when it is cultivated it responds gratifyingly to even the most rudimentary care.”

With the lowest water requirement of all grain crops, millet is the major food source in the arid and semi-arid regions of China, Africa and South Asia; it is the principal food sustaining one third of the earth’s population. As a foodstuff, millet offers many treasures, being alkaline, easily digested and gluten free. Millet can ensure glycemic control. Its serotonin is calming, its protein is nourishing.

Millet can survive with rain, meaning it does not need to be heavily irrigated by large dams or elaborate canal systems. It also nurtures the land and improves soil health so there’s no need for fertilizer. Unlike most grains, millet does not require deep ploughing. It is shallow planted, sown and harvested with minimal tools. It can be kept in storage for a decade and is resistant to pest attacks, leading to the ancient practice of protecting legume crops by interspersing them with a few rows of millet. And as a final advantage, millet has a remarkably short cultivation time compared to most grains.

Millet became the staple grain of the earliest Chinese civilizations and the nomadic peoples of Central Asia. They could go to the fields and broadcast seed, only needing to return after three months to harvest the grains. But as the centuries passed, millet was superseded by wheat and rice on richer soils and became the crop of the poorer rural classes. In India, for example, it was the staple of the lower caste, the Adivasi (tribal) and Dalit (untouchable) communities. Until 60 years ago, rice and wheat, the grains of the privileged, were grown only in the well-irrigated and highly fertile areas while the much larger portion of poor and marginal land was given over to millet. The foundation diet of most rural Indians was dahl (lentils) and roti – a flat bread made from millet flour.

But with the movement of populations away from the land towards urban areas, millet came to be looked down upon as the “coarse grains” of the unsophisticated village ancestors. This story is common in the history of humankind, for food is aspirational. With the increase of wealth and choice, the simple foods we reject are replaced by an overly refined diet that lacks the nutrients critically important to our physical well-being

In India, the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s aimed to increase agricultural productivity and avert famine by calling for large-scale investment in rice and wheat, yet it offered little to the countless farmers living on marginal land whose millet crops accounted for 40 per cent of the nation’s total grain production. Over the decades since then, the amount of land given over to rice has doubled and to wheat tripled. These grains require large investments in machinery, hybrid seed and chemicals. Millet, in contrast, thrives in diverse, small scale, low-impact farming environments; it offers little profit to agro-chemical corporations and large food companies.

Nonetheless, millet is slowly being rediscovered by researchers seeking to develop a more sustainable global food system. Many now recognize that by following the western model of development and ignoring the roots of their ancient agrarian cultures, India and other developing nations have lost much that was useful and meaningful. Following the Slow Food movement, we have now arrived at the Smart Food movement, launched in 2017 to restore the popularity of millet and sorghum; its mandate is to promote “what is good for you, good for the planet and good for the small holder farmer.” Another organization, the Millet Foundation, reports that “with growing health consciousness, environmental concern, and the pressing need for updating our food systems to survive climate change, the millets are making a comeback.” There is hope that we shall see the “Queen of the Cereal Crops” regain her crown.

Carolyn Best is the former proprietor/chef of The Pantry vegetarian tearoom, and a regular Glebe Report contributor on food.

Millet and Cauliflower  with Tamari Gravy

  • 1 tbsp oil
  • I cauliflower, cut in small pieces
  • 1 cup millet
  • 4 cups water

Rinse and strain, then dry roast the millet by stirring it in a cast-iron frying pan until dry and fragrant. Sauté the cauliflower in the oil until golden. Boil the water, then immerse the cauliflower and the millet. Cover and simmer very gently until cooked through (45 minutes depending on temperature). It will be light and fluffy like mashed potatoes and goes well with tamari gravy.

For the gravy, heat ¼ cup oil and ½ cup tamari together. When it boils, stir 3 tablespoons arrowroot flour into 1½ cups of water, add to the oil/ tamari and stir until it thickens to a gravy consistency.

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