What? Birdseed? Surely not? Yes, I really do mean millet. Rich in protein, vitamin B, iron and calcium yet free from glutens, why would you only let birds eat it? Some of us may have already discovered millet’s many virtues, and that was long before Angelina Jolie decided to tuck into it as part of her ‘ancient grains’ diet. Who knows whether it’s making her skin glow or crunching her calories, but one thing for sure is that it is ancient. It’s believed to be one of the earliest domesticated plants cultivated by the Chinese before rice and the discovery of a bowl of millet noodles dating back 4,000 years proves its Neolithic origins. Which begs the question, why was it then sidelined by rice despite having up to 30 times more calcium and twice the amount of vitamin B? Could it be down to the dearth of recipes or its taste? That’s what I set out to test.
Millet certainly can’t be accused of being monotone. There are more than 12 types from foxtail and finger (named after the shape of the mature cereal head) to proso and pearl millet. Okay, so we’re not going to be seduced by quirky names – what else has it to offer? Mothers from Mali to Mumbai swear by it as baby porridge and finger millet in particular is packed with calcium (3 times more than milk). It’s also a natural antioxidant that helps with digestion. But porridge is probably the least exciting way to eat millet – though perfectly enjoyable when mixed with raisins and mashed banana as my 3 and 5 year olds can confirm.
I wanted more from millet so I stocked up on organic millet flakes, flour and grains. Buying these online was easy and many health food stores stock them too. But why don’t we see millet sitting next to couscous or quinoa on supermarket shelves? Surely they could serve as a noble alternative to the better known and widely used couscous. Armed with inspirational nuggets from food bloggers across the world, I have been left rather perplexed as to why this tasty grain has been so unloved and unexplored by us.
The easiest way to eat millet is by toasting 2 cups of grains in a couple of tablespoons of oil in a heavy bottomed pan. Once the grains turn golden brown, lower the heat and add in 3 cups of stock and some fresh parsely or coriander and let it simmer for 20 minutes till the liquid is soaked up. This gluten free ‘couscous’ is nutty and textured, perfect for accompanying a sausage casserole or any rich sauce. If you prefer a creamier risotto style, add more water and let the millet cook a little longer.
Millet ‘couscous’ could be used in hearty summer salads with walnuts and beetroot or broccoli and split peas. A big benefit is that the satisfyingly, full feeling stays for a long time after the meal. Apparently that’s due to its slow release of sugars, which is also the reason it’s beneficial for diabetics. In fact, you can use millet instead of rice for all kinds of recipes. My favorite was millet sushi – simply replacing the rice filling with millet. The non-glutinous texture made the mouthfuls more interesting and the nutty aftertaste married well with the sharpness in the soy sauce.
And why not millet in stir-fries? This vegetarian recipe can also be used with thinly sliced meat for those of us with more carnivorous cravings. Moving from the Orient to Italy, using millet flour to make pasta was a much trickier affair but that was more due to my clumsily cut strips rather than the millet itself. Getting the cooking time right was hard but the resulting pasta kicked a far greater punch than wheat alone.
Savoury – so far so good. But the sweet is where millet really comes into its own. A nice surprise was the malted jaggery smells wafting through the kitchen as the cakes baked. Using a mixture of millet and wholewehat flour gives cakes and cookies a richer, deeper taste. Millet flour is often mixed with unrefined jaggery to make traditional Indian sweets. There’s no end to the ways to bake from banana and raisin cakey bread to chocolate fudge cake.
The secluded Hunza tribe who live in the remote Himalayan foothills and are known for their long life spans (over 100 years on average) – eat millet as a cereal, in soups, and in whole grain bread. Their diet and lifestyle is being studied to uncover the secret behind living to 140 and there are several versions of the ‘Hunza Bread’ recipe online, claiming to banish hunger and promote health.
So what’s left to say? Move over quinoa – millet’s had a makeover. An ethical enterprise called 2 degrees in San Fransisco use millet in their healthy snack bars and something tells me that this is just the start. Savoury snacks such as popped millet could hail a diabetes friendly revolution. But the main message here is ‘millet isn’t just good for you. It’s good for the planet.’ It has a much lower water foot print than many other cereals (it needs 3.5 times less water to grow than rice). No wonder it’s the staple food in some of the driest parts of the world. But as happened in China all those thousands of years ago, millet is being shunned in favour of wheat, maize and rice, maybe as it has a poor image and its versatility and modern recipes are yet to be explored. The other cereals need much more water to grow, leaving dryland farmers who rely on what little rain they get, desperately hoping for a miracle to happen in the market for their millet.
Millet didn’t always have a ‘poor’ image. In the old Japanese folktale of a little boy Momotaro, a bag of millet dumplings lovingly made by his parents, helped him gather friends for the fight against the demons on Ogres’ Island. The strength the dumplings give the brave fighters confidence to win the battle. In an animation based on the tale, millet dumplings are seen as a symbol of comfort, warmth, and strength, with the monkey showing his growing biceps after eating his meal.
Maybe the claim of ancient grains helping to make our skin glow comes from feeling good about what we are eating – because it’s tasty and healthy. Add to this, the fact it could help revitalize markets for dryland farming communities, now that’s what I call food for thought.