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Entries Tagged as 'foxtail millet'

Four millets: More grains & the “millet spectrum”

The word “millet” in English is an inexact term. It can refer to any one of a number of cereals that have roundish grains, of which the four most cultivated worldwide – pearl/bajri, foxtail/xiaomi, proso, and finger/ragi – have been highlighted in the previous posts in this series. It can also refer collectively to all or some selection of them, perhaps including one or more other related grains that aren’t usually thought of as millets – notably sorghum, teff, and fonio.  For instance, one overview of millets in Africa discussed pearl millet, finger millet, teff, and fonio. The below diagram of Indian millets, on the other hand, features bajra/pearl millet, ragi/finger millet, thinai/foxtail millet (recall the Chinese name associated with this is xiaomi), and sorghum, along with two others: varagu (kodo millet) and jowar (evidently a variety of sorghum).

Other millets and related grains

The grains of millets and related cereals range in size, with sorghum being the largest, pearl/bajri the next, and then a number of “small millets.” ICRISAT states that there are about a dozen “small millets,” including finger/ragi, foxtail/xiaomi, and proso, which we have already covered, but not including teff or fonio. A list of millets by FAO includes the latter two. A selection of the millets other than the four already profiled, drawn from ICRISAT’s and FAO’s lists as well as other sources, and ordered roughly by size of grain from large to small, are:

Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) is sometimes also counted as a (large-grained) millet in Africa (where it originated) and the Indian subcontinent. It is a major crop worldwide – fifth overall (after corn/maize, rice, wheat, and barley, and before pearl millet) – grown for its grain and also for animal forage. See profiles in Lost Crops of Africa and the ICRISAT site. It is one of those grains touted as a possible “superfood.”

Kodo millet (Paspalum scrobiculatum), also called rice grass, originated in Africa but is cultivated mainly in India, as well as some countries in Southeast Asia. It apparently has been introduced to the US. Kodo is both wild and cultivated, and more suited to humid/damp habitats. See profiles on the USDA and IUCN Redlist sites.

Barnyard millet, may refer either to: Japanese barnyard millet (Echinochloa esculenta), or simply Japanese millet, which is grown primarily in Northeast Asia, but also in parts of the US (see profile on the USDA site); or to Indian barnyard millet (Echinochloa frumentacea), or billion-dollar grass, which is grown primarily in South Asia and parts of North America (see profile on the USDA site). These two, an uncultivated species, Echinochloa crus-galli, and perhaps others are closely related.

Little millet (Panicum sumatrense) is similar to proso millet but smaller. It is a minor crop in parts of Asia, in some areas grown up to 2100 meters altitude. See profile on the Useful Tropical Plants site.

Teff (Eragrostis tef) is a small grain of the Horn of Africa. It is described in Lost Crops of Africa, and featured last year on the BBC site as yet another superfood candidate. Teff is especially important in Ethiopian cuisine, used to make injera (እንጀራ).

Fonio, grown in various parts of West Africa, is actually two species. They are profiled in Lost Crops of Africa. The term fonio usually refers to Digitaria exilis, also known as white fonio, acha, or hungry rice. A 2014 article in The Guardian described its use in the US. Black fonio (Digitaria iburua) is grown primarily in Nigeria.

Millet spectrum

To make sense of this it might help first to consider these grains together as a “millet spectrum” ranging from large grains (sorghum) to very small (fonio). Yet this spectrum could also be reordered by color (which itself varies considerably within species) or regrouped by:

  • taxonomy (the website of the Millet Project in California has a simple breakdown by “tribe” within the grass family; note that ragi/finger millet is more closely related to teff than other grains we call millet)
  • tolerance to drought (bajri being perhaps the best in this category) vs. wet conditions (from the descriptions, kodo may be on the other extreme; sorghum, although adapted to drier conditions, can also support some inundation),
  • optimal latitudes of cultivation (per the tentative distinction made in the first post of this series between tropical or Afro-Indian millets, and temperate or Eurasian millets)
  • optimal altitudes of cultivation (ragi, teff, and little millet, for example, being adapted to higher altitudes),
  • grain structure (sorghum, pearl/bajri, and finger/ragi being more like wheat, and proso, foxtail/xiaomi, fonio, and kodo millet being more like rice in that they have hulls)
  • nutrient content (varies slightly, as one would expect, but there are some outliers, such as ragi’s calcium content)
  • flavor (a millet is not a millet when it comes to taste, even if the differences may in some cases be subtle)

To add to this complexity, each of these species has varieties and cultivars with different characteristics and names (for instance the US Alternative Field Crops Manual page on millets lists and compares several varieties of proso and foxtail). One expression of these differences in many millets, for example, is the color of the grains.

So it is a multifaceted group, which gets back to the original point of this series – to make a practice of distinguishing among the individual plants and, and from a consumer’s point of view, the individual grains. And in so doing, to also call attention to current labeling practices and regulation. But how to distinguish among millets when labeling doesn’t help?

Vive les différences!

Most millets you are likely to encounter are one of the main four discussed in this series of blogposts. Understanding which one you are looking at requires context and familiarity. Context begins with where you are, since different millets tend to be more common in different countries and cultures. In the US, most sold for human consumption is proso, though labels for it, foxtail/xiaomi and pearl/bajri will all indicate the same ingredient: “millet” (the exception seems to be ragi, which in my limited sample is labeled as “finger millet”). In different countries (and markets in the US carrying foods from them), the selection and likelihood of encountering another millet are higher, and the local names used may help disambiguate. Beyond that, characteristics like color or grain size may also help.

For example, when I found packaged millet flour at the Indian Spices store in Falls Church, Virginia, it was only the Indian name “bajri” that confirmed my hunch based on the color of the flour, that this was indeed pearl millet (the otherwise helpful staff did not know, so I did a websearch via smartphone).

As for familiarity, such as knowing the color of pearl millet flour or the relative size of proso and foxtail millets, I can only pass on some observations that give some idea. The following picture, for example, shows the grayish pearl/bajri flour on the left, and the reddish finger/ragi on the right.


Flour of pearl/bajri (l.) & finger/ragi (r.)

Varieties of foxtail/xiaomi and proso that I have seen have yellow grains. I have not seen flour of either, though I imagine it would be difficult to distinguish the two, even as neither could be mistaken for either of the above. However, there is a significant difference in grain size, as illustrated in the following picture.

Foxtail/xiaomi (l.), proso (r.)

Foxtail/xiaomi (l.), proso (r.)

A quick and very subjective characterization of taste: pearl/bajri, flat; finger/ragi, sharp; proso, round; and foxtail/xiaomi, faint. I find bajri and ragi to have stronger flavors, while xiaomi and proso are blander.

Variety hidden by a name

The purpose of this series of six posts on millets, in which the main four – bajri/pearl, ragi/finger, xiaomi/foxtail, and proso – have been highlighted, is to call attention to the differences among what often get lumped together as a single “millet.” These cereals are not the same, either in the field or on the plate, even if some subsets of the larger group are similar in one or another respect. Their very diversity represents, collectively, a resource for our future as we face both increased demand for food production and a changing climate.

To facilitate thinking about – and marketing of? – these main four millets as separate grains, I’ve suggested borrowing into English some common foreign terms which, like teff or fonio, do not use the word “millet.” A further step would be food labeling that tells consumers more about the identity of the product than just “millet.”


Four millets: 3. Foxtail millet, or xiaomi

Korean foxtail millet - from ClipArt etc.Foxtail millet (Setaria italica) is the oldest cultivated millet, the most important in East Asia, and the second most cultivated worldwide. It is believed to have been domesticated first in China, with evidence of cultivation going back about 8700 years. The species name as well as some vernacular names reflect its historic significance in Europe.

Foxtail millet is described by FAO, USDA, Feedipedia, and on the ICRISAT site. A blog on millets has several photos.

millet-foxtail-xiaomiOther English names include Italian millet, German millet, Hungarian millet, and dwarf or giant setaria. The Mandarin Chinese name for this grain is commonly said to be 小米 (xiǎomǐ), which literally means “little rice.” Chinese nomenclature for cultivated millets is actually quite complex, but xiaomi apparently refers to the hulled grain of foxtail millet (among the common names for this species and varieties of it are 谷子 gŭzǐ &  粟 ). There are of course many names in the various languages spoken where foxtail millet is cultivated – one name from India that I’ve come across is thinnai or tenai.

millet-foxtail-xiaomiXiaomi can be cooked in soup or porridge, or as one would cook rice. I find the taste milder than the previous two millets (bajri and ragi). There are glutinous varieties of this grain (seen in a market as 糯小米 nuò xiǎomǐ). Like rice, but unlike the bajri, ragi, or wheat, the grain needs to be hulled to cook – which is how it is sold, such as in the package shown on the left.

As a crop it has a wide range, cultivated across much of Asia and Europe, though as a minor crop in most of the latter. In the US it is mainly grown as animal feed and for birdseed. Interestingly, cultivation of foxtail millet in the central US increased dramatically after 1850 until it was the most widely cultivated millet in the country by the end of the century (the introduction of sudangrass as a forage crop led to a decline in cultivation of foxtail; no figures found on current foxtail vs. proso production in US).

Like other millets foxtail millet is tolerant of drought and can produce on poor soils in a short season (60-90 days for this one). On the other hand, some sources indicate its production does not benefit much from fertilizers or irrigation.

(Thanks to Jens Østergaard Petersen for his help with sources for Chinese names for millets. Needless to say, the interpretations above are mine.)

The next post in this series is “Four millets: 4. Proso millet.”


Four millets: Recognizing the differences

Millet” can actually refer to any one of several related but distinct kinds of grains, though you wouldn’t know it seeing the term in lists of ingredients, statistics on crop production and trade, or some articles about food and nutrition (for example, this otherwise nice article on FoodTank.org). The good news is that (1) each of these grains – each of these diverse millets – has its own character as a food, and (2) as crops, they are are adapted to a range of drought and soil conditions we will face in the wake of climate change.

So maybe it’s time to stop lumping these grains together as if “millet” were one thing, or marketing one or another type of millet as just “millet,” as we often do in the US, so as to better educate about, and take advantage of, their diversity.

A picture of the grains of these 4 millets from an article in Straits Times follows. For more pictures of the 4 millets, the Whole Grains Council site has a page with some photos.

4 millets

1) Pearl, 2) Proso. 3) Finger, 4) Foxtail.
Image adapted from StraitsTimes.com

As an encouragement to get specific about types of millet, I will profile the four main types in terms of annual production worldwide, in a series of posts on this blog, plus an additional post on other less-widely cultivated millets and the “millet spectrum.” In order of production, the four main millets would be listed as pearl millet, foxtail millet, proso millet, and finger millet. They are important as foods in much of the world, but also grown in some places (like the US) for forage or birdseed.

In the four posts to follow this one, I will first list the two tropical millets which are least known in the West – pearl and finger. We might also call these “Afro-Indian” millets based on their origin and regions of highest production. In my experience in Africa and using flour of these two millets from Indian markets in the US, these millets are used in a range of sweet and savory foods, generally after being milled to flour or cracked, as well as in making alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

Then I list the two that are better known in more temperate regions – foxtail and proso (although foxtail ranges down to South Asia). We might call these “Eurasian” millets, again based on their origins and history. From personal experience in China and the US, these small millets are typically cooked whole, such as in soups or porridges.

None of these grains are limited in how they can be prepared and eaten, but their nutritional profiles are not the same, and I find they have different flavors.

And as crops they also have differences, although millets in general can deal with less than optimal growing conditions, and produce with low inputs. The downside is that their maximum production is not comparable to corn, wheat, or rice.

Pearl millet, for instance, produces in the hot semi-arid Sahel, even on poor soils. According to ICRISAT, this grain “has immense potential for adaptation to the extreme limits of agriculture.” The other “Afro-Indian” millet in our group of four – finger millet is also adaptable crop, though mainly grown in higher altitudes. The two “Eurasian” millets in the group also produce in varied conditions.

A big part of promoting cultivation and consumption of these grains, which are masked under the catchall name “millet,” in regions where they are not widely known like North America, will be educating consumers and farmers about their different character as foods and crops. And a step to succeeding in that, would be policies to distinguish among the millets in food labeling and agricultural statistics.

Towards that end, I will highlight a non-English name as an alternative reference for 3 of the group of 4 – the exception being proso (itself a name of Slavic origin) – with the thoughts that (1) using loan words might help us avoid always lumping all millets together, and (2) the English names are easily confused (especially as there are usually several for each type). Crossed word images for the suggested names are also provided as an aide-mémoire. Two of the names are from India, and one from China: pearl millet as bajri (or bajra); finger millet as ragi; and foxtail millet as xiaomi.

Millet crossword aide-mémoires

Following this post, there will be one post on each of the four main millets, then one more on less-widely cultivated millets and the “millet spectrum.” The next posts in this series are: