Monday, September 1, 2008


What is Millet? When did people first begin to eat Millet? Where did Millet come from?

Millet is a kind of grain that grows wild in Africa and all across Asia. It grows about fifteen feet tall, like corn on the cob (it looks kind of like corn when it is growing, too). Millet grows fast, and doesn’t need very much rain, so it’s a good crop for dry or cold climates. It will grow in places where wheat and barley will not grow. Also, millet is easy to store. You can keep it up to five years. So it’s good for places that have long winters or often have droughts.

There are two main different kinds of millet, and people may have begun farming the two kinds independently. Broomyard millet grew wild in China, and hunters and gatherers in early China probably ate millet. People have been farming broomyard millet in Northern China since about 4500 BC. Northern China was dry and cold, so it was a good place to grow millet. The sign for millet is common in Chinese writing, where the signs for "millet" and "mouth" put together mean "good", and the signs for "millet" and "man" together mean "harvest" or "year".

The other important kind of millet is pearl millet. It grows wild in the Sudan (south of the Sahara Desert) in Africa. By 4000 BC, people in the Sudan were farming pearl millet, and from there pearl millet spread to East Africa and then to Egypt by around 3000 BC. The Egyptians made a flat bread like pita bread out of millet, and they made their bread in the same room where they brewed beer. The brewing process grew a lot of wild yeasts, and the yeasts got into the millet and made the earliest raised millet bread. When the Egyptians noticed this, they began mixing beer with their flour instead of water, to make light fluffy bread like we eat today.. Some people still make beer bread today. Around the same time, lake-dwelling Europeans were also using millet.

From East Africa millet also spread to India, where people were farming it by about 2500 BC. The Harappans used millet to make roti, a kind of flatbread like pita bread. About the same time, Sumerians in West Asia were also growing millet. Bible tells us that millet was growing in Israel around 600 BC. The Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the 400's BC, described millet growing very tall in the Persian Empire, but he also knew that people farmed millet in Greece. Millet in Europe about this time was usually eaten boiled in water or milk like oatmeal or polenta. In Northern Italy and Rome, this millet porridge was called puls, and it was the most common food of really poor people in the time of the Roman Republic.

About the same time, pearl millet spread from Eastern Africa south down the coast and became more and more common in southern Africa as well.

By the Han Dynasty, about 200 BC, a lot of people in China were making wine out of millet. In Africa, people made beer out of it.

Medieval Europeans continued to rely on millet porridge for an important part of their food (they called it groats). And millet continued to be very important in northern China as well.

Marco Polo, a man from Venice who visited China during the reign of Kublai Khan, in the 1200's AD, said that most Chinese people ate millet cooked in milk into porridge.
Not so much one thing as a blanket term applied to various grass seeds with similar qualities. The five major millet varieties are proso, foxtail, barnyard, browntop and pearl. All are rich in B vitamins, calcium, iron and zinc. Millet flour can only make flatbread on its own because it is gluten free. But, as it’s almost identical to wheat in nutritional value, millet is the go-to alternative for people with wheat allergies or celiac disease.

Though wheat has stolen the spotlight from millet in the baking world, millet has a great history as food for the masses. The production of millet has been traced back as far as 7000 BC in China.
Millet is very small grain and would take some doing to harvest it efficiently. The holes in the screens on your combine would be pretty tiny. But somebody is getting it done and they have for about 9000 years, give or take a few centuries. It would be interesting to know how a homesteader could raise his own 50 square feet of Millet for his Winter sustenance.

Vlad Strelok is the driver behind this post but he didn't get me the data on harvesting. And harvesting is part of the system we need to incorporate into our lives. Stay alive!


1 comment:

vlad said...

People in Nepal harvesting millet. I hope we can think of something less labour intensive.