Of the various foods brought to North America from Africa*, millet is one of my favorites, ranking only slightly below okra. Half of millet’s joy is its vaguely nutty blank slate quality: this grain will absorb what ever spices you want, so you can use it under curries or make a spicy Ethiopian-inspired variant with ease, or swap to Italian or whatnot. Go crazy.
But what is millet?
It’s actually not a singular question. What are millets? There is no one millet grass, and several of the grasses dubbed millets aren’t all that related to each other. What millets have in common are tiny little edible seeds that are nutritious and generally have a high germ to endosperm ratio. (That’s almost a redundant sentence- the “germ” is the seriously nutritious bit of any seed, the endosperm is the starchy bit.)
The birdseed millet is not the same one generally eaten by humans. It’s not inedible or toxic or anything, but it’s just not as tasty. Birdseed millet (aka “proso millet”) is one of the switchgrasses (Panicum sp.), related to broomcorn, and considered a type of sorghum. If you’re not sure if you’ve ever had sorghum, it generally presents as a copper colored molasses-y syrup and tastes great in bread making.
The millets people eat belong to entirely different genuses, not just species. The most common is pearl millet, a cousin of both fountain grass and Kikuyu (“pasture grass”). Who knew?
Pearl millet has a nice big (comparatively) seed and that bigness can show up in the stature of the plant too: 12 feet! (4m!) The color of the seed can vary hugely, but I see the white and creamy ones most often. Likely the abundance of this paler color range correlates somehow to growing at a better height for harvesting.
“Finger” millets are very popular in India and are the other end of the size spectrum, the plants rarely getting higher than 3 feet (1 m). Finger millets are yet again another genus of grass, related to neither the birdseed nor the pearl millet. What they have in common with pearl millet is the ability to handle seriously arid landscapes while still reliably producing a sizable crop.
There are other millets, too, but they are less internationally popular and not foods I can say “oh yeah, I’ve had that”. The one other one I’ve run into is known as a foxtail millet. It’s most often spotted as a weed in the garden, but I tend to not get rid of it all because the birds do like it. Someday I’ll get around to trying it myself.
How to Cook Millet
Every millet I’ve eaten benefited greatly from toasting before cooking. That post is coming next.
*The original source of such “a” widespread grain is hard to pin point, but there are more wild varieties (and more cultivated varieties, too) in the arid Sahel region of northern Africa than anywhere else. That’s the factor that wins when all else looks equal: millet is thus considered to be from Africa. Millet varieties were found in ancient India, China, and Korea, too, and look to have been more fundamental than rice in early Asian agricultural history.
** Jean Francois Millet, The Gleaners (1857)