What is Millet?

Image Credit: 
Main Image: 

Most of us might think Millet is used as birdseed. The millets are a group of tiny-seeded species of cereal  grains, typically found all over world for food and animal feed. Millet is one of the ancient foods recognized by humans and perhaps the initial cereal grain to be used for household purposes. Millet is slightly sweet and nutty and can be used in everything from pilafs to cookies. It has a comforting, soothing effect that makes it apt for recipes in fall and winter seasons. In addition, millet is creamy like mashed potatoes or fluffy like rice and is an appetizer that can accompany many varieties of food. Like other grains, millet can be purchased in markets all over the year. India is the world's foremost producer of millet yet it has always been a greatly overlooked grain. Research study on millets is carried out by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Andhra Pradesh, India, and by the USDA-ARS at Tifton, Georgia, USA. At present, millet ranks as the sixth most important grain in the world, sustains 1/3 of the world’s population and is a noteworthy part of the diet in northern China, Japan, Manchuria and various areas of the former Soviet Union, Africa, India, and Egypt. In Eastern Africa, millet is used to make beer. It is also an ingredient in Eastern European fermented drinks and porridges.



What is the origin and history of millet?

It is documented that during the Stone Age, Millet plant was grown by the lake inhabitants of Switzerland. History reads that since the Neolithic Era, millet, a prehistoric seed was cultivated in the dry climates of Africa and northern China. Interestingly it was millets and not rice that was a staple food in Indian, Chinese Neolithic and Korean civilizations. Eventually, millet spread all over the world. Romans and Gauls made porridge from it, and in the Middle Ages millet was more extensively eaten than wheat. The interesting fact is that the millet is also pointed out in the Bible, and was used during those days to prepare bread. Millet made its way from China to the Black Sea region of Europe by 5000 BC. 


How to describe the millet plant?

  • Millet is a tall, vertical annual grass resembling Maize in appearance.
  • Millet plants vary in appearance and size, depending on variety and can grow in height from 1 to 15 feet.
  • Millet plants usually have uncouth stems and grow in opaque bunches with grass-like leaves. They are abundant and slim, measuring about an inch broad and can grow over 6 feet long.
  • The seeds are covered in colored hulls, with color depending on diversity, and the seed are held above the grassy plant on a spike about 6 to 14 inches long and are exceptionally beautiful.
  • Since millet is covered with an unusually hard to digest hull, it becomes necessary to hull it before it can be used. Hulling does not affect the nutrient value as the germ stays intact through this process.
  • After hulling, millet grains appear as small yellow spheres.



Where does millet grow?

Millet is a major crop in many countries, particularly the African and Indian subcontinent where the crop covers almost 100 million acres and thrives in the hot dry climate that is not conducive for other grains such as wheat and rice. The plant is now grown in the U.S. on 200,000 acres in Colorado, North Dakota, and Nebraska however a major part of the crop is still used for livestock, poultry and bird feed.



What are the nutrients present in millet?

  • Millet has nearly 15% protein content. It also contains high amounts of fiber, B-vitamins like Niacin, Thiamin, and Riboflavin, Vitamin E and some essential amino acids  like methionine and lecithin
  • It is especially rich in minerals such as iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium.
  • Millet is highly alkaline, making it easily digestible and soothing to the stomach.



What are the different types of Millet?

The most extensively cultivated species classified in the order of global production are:

  • Pearl millet: It is an extensively grown variety of millet. It is grown in the African and Indian subcontinent from ancient times. General belief has it that pearl millet emerged in Africa and was later launched in India.
  • Foxtail millet: It is the second most commonly grown species of millet, chiefly in East Asia. Foxtail millet has the greatest history of cultivation among other types and it is grown in China approximately around the 6th millennium BC. Several other names for foxtail millet are Italian millet, German millet, Chinese millet, and Hungarian millet.
  • Proso millet: Other names of proso millet are common millet, hog millet or white millet. Together the wild ancestor and the site of cultivation of proso millet are indefinite. Yellow proso is the type that is found most often in packaged form or in bulk bins at health food stores.
  • Finger millet: It is an annual plant extensively grown as a cereal in the dry areas of Africa and Asia.


How to cook Millet?

Millet can be incorporated in many main dishes and its flavor best complements winter squashes and desserts. Millet has a slightly nutty flavor and depending on how it is cooked, it can be crunchy or soft.  The steps to cook millet are:

  • For cooking basic millet: Rinse and drain millet. In an average pan, add 1 cup millet to 2 1/2 cups water and bring to a boil. Cover and cook for 15 minutes under medium-low flame. Remove from heat and allow to settle uncovered for 20 minutes. Coat it with butter or olive oil and season with salt, pepper or herbs for taste. This makes about 3 cups of tasty porridge.
  • To get a softer texture like mashed potatoes, you can increase the water quantity to 3 1/2 cups, cover and allow it to simmer for 45 minutes until all the water is absorbed.
  • To get a nutty flavor, dry fry the millet before cooking. Toast it in a pan without water over medium heat, stirring continuously for about 3 minutes until it releases a distinct aroma.
  • Surplus millet can be tossed into salads, stir-fried with tofu and vegetables, made into croquettes, or slightly heated with milk, honey and cinnamon for breakfast.


What are the health benefits of Millet?

  • The principles of Chinese medicine are designed to focus on consuming food with respect to individual imbalances. Millet and other grains such as barley and quinoa are believed to maintain the ill temper and get rid of mugginess in the human body system.

  • According to Chinese medicine, Millet also helps the kidneys which are essential for the health of the entire body system.
  • Often, people of the African tribe credit millet for their wonderful-looking teeth as it has been their staple food for a long time. This also explains the secret of their fitness. 
  • Millet is highly nutritious, non-glutinous and non-acid forming food which is very soothing and easy to digest.
  • The seeds are also rich in phyto chemicals including Phytic acid, which is believed to lower cholesterol.Phytate is believed to reduce cancer risk.
  • People with coeliac disease can replace certain gluten-containing cereals in their diets with millet.
  • Millets are closely related to wheat and are suitable food for those with coeliac disease or other forms of allergy/intolerance of wheat.


Can thyroid patients eat millet?

Millets contain thyroid peroxidase in mild quantity. This enzyme is an iodine inhibitor when millet is taken in small quantities. However, when millet is consumed by thyroid patients in large quantities, it is known to cause swelling of thyroid gland. Thus thyroid patients should avoid eating millet.

External References
Related Videos: 
See video
Related Images: