Millet is an extremely old crop, possibly the first cereal grain that was domesticated by early farmers. It is thought to have been grown as early as 5500 BC in China and perhaps even earlier in other regions like Africa and India where it grew as a wild plant. Millet is mentioned in the Bible (Ezekiel 4:9). Some research also indicates that early man cultivated millet in Switzerland during the Stone Age.
The millet plant is related to sorghum, another grain crop. It is a tall grass that can grow up to fifteen feet tall. These plants are grown in the summer and produce stalks that contain hundreds of seeds slighly larger than couscous. The seeds have an ivory color and are round, giving them the appearance of tiny beads. Like many other grains, these seeds are surrounded by a tough, inedible hull. There are four main types of millet: pearl (Pennisetum glaucum, P. typhoides, P. tyhpideum, and P. americanum), foxtail (Setaria italica), proso (Panicum miliaceum), and finger (Eleusine coracana). Pearl millet produces the largest seeds and is the type most commonly grown for human consumption. It is grown throughout the African continent and in certain areas in Asia. Finger millet (given its name because of the finger-like shape of the stalks) is grown mainly in Africa and India. Foxtail millet is mainly produced in China while Proso millet is mainly found in Russia and North and South America.
Today millet is a staple food for about a third of the world's population and roughly 28 million tons are produced annually. Millet thrives in hot, dry climates where other grains like wheat and rice are not able to grow. It is therefore mainly grown and consumed in Asian, African, and Middle Eastern regions. Besides eating the seeds the straw from the millet plant is used as food for livestock, fuel, and to build structures. In the United States and other Western countries millet is not commonly eaten but instead is used as birdseed and cattle feed.
Millet has lots of protein and fiber, as well as calcium, vitamin B, iron, magnesium, and potassium. It also contains methionine, an important amino acid often missing in the diets of people who live in third world countries. Millet has a mild nutty flavor and an al dente texture like brown rice. It is commonly used in soups and stews and served as a side dish, either on its own or mixed with rice. It is often combined with buckwheat in Eastern Europe to make breakfast porridge. Fresh whole millet seeds can be grown into sprouts and dried seeds can be popped like popcorn. Millet is also ground into a gluten-free flour. This flour is mixed with wheat flour to make flat breads.
To cook millet, mix one cup millet with three cups water in a saucepan. Bring the water to a boil and then reduce the heat, cover the pan, and let the contents simmer for 30 to 40 minutes or until the water has been absorbed by the millet. Remove from the heat and let the saucepan sit for another 10 minutes, then fluff and serve. Millet can also be microwaved for faster cooking. Mix one cup millet and two cups water in a microwave safe bowl. Microwave on high for 20 minutes, stir and let sit for another five. Roasting millet before it is boiled helps to further bring out its nutty flavor. Heat the millet in a fry pan with or without oil over medium heat for several minutes until you can smell a nutty aroma and then boil as described above.