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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).
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millet#/media/File:Indian_Millets.png

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.

bajri-ragi-flours

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.”

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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.”

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Four millets: 2. Finger millet, or ragi

pearl-bajri crosswordFinger millet (Eleusine coracana) is the second of the four millets to be described in this series of posts, and the fourth most produced among them worldwide. It is a native of the highlands of the Horn of Africa, but the main producer is India. In Africa it is grown mainly in a number of countries in the east and south.

Finger millet is described in Lost Crops of Africa, PROTA4U, Feedipedia, and the ICRISAT site. It seems to have the most interesting nutritional profile of the four millets, including a remarkably high calcium content. There is no shortage of articles online extolling its virtues – among them, one lists 6 reasons why it “rules” and another lists “10 health benefits.”

finger-ragi crosswordOther English names for finger millet include eleusine, caracan millet, koracan, and apparently also “pampered corn.” The color of the grain and its flour is reddish (compared to the grayish appearance of previously profiled pearl millet), so yet another name is red millet. It of course has names in the languages of regions where people cultivate it, and of these probably the most common is one used widely in South Asia, “ragi“: रागी (Hindi & Rajasthani); ರಾಗಿ (Kannada); ராகி (Tamil); రాగి (Telugu); راگی (Urdu).

Africa

Bessa Bushera canAlthough finger millet/ragi is apparently cultivated in parts of West Africa, I don’t recall ever seeing or eating it there. It was in Uganda that I first encountered it in the form of a non-alcoholic “millet” drink called “bushera” (a photo of a can of marketed locally is shown on left). It tasted a bit different than what I would have expected from the pearl millet I already knew (even allowing for some sorghum content in the beverage). There are also fermented beers – including an alcoholic version of bushera – made with this grain.

Unfortunately I did not have the chance to try any dishes prepared with finger millet from East Africa. One major use is in porridge (for two different takes on finger millet porridge with reference to Africa, see here & here).

Various sources indicate that production in Africa declined for many years in favor of crops like corn/maize, but that it is on the rise again with some help from projects (Worldwatch has a good overview, even if a bit dated, and an African Research Institute article gives a good case study from Zimbabwe).

South Asia

An article in The Hindu mentions some uses of finger millet, focusing on India:

the ragi grain is malted and the grains are ground and consumed, mixed with milk, boiled water or yogurt. Also, the ragi flour is made into flatbreads, including thick, leavened dosa and thinner and even unleavened rotis. It can be ground and cooked into cakes, puddings or porridges, Or, the grain is even fermented and converted to a drink (or beer) in Nepal and in many parts of Africa.

The Pinterest site features a collection of recipes, many of which seem from a quick look to be from South Asia.

Ragi is cultivated notably in Karnataka, Kerela, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamilnadu provinces of India. Production levels have evidently been declining slowly over the last 20 years, but it is still a major crop. (A fact sheet on ragi culture may be of interest.)

Personal use in the U.S.

Not long after I found bajri flour in a local Indian food market, I decided to experiment with ragi from the same store – main object being something new to try for breakfasts (my responsibility on weekdays). As with bajri, I tried this with a breakfast oatmeal cooked with some ragi flour added. I found this grain has a relatively strong taste, almost tangy compared to the other millets. Also tried it with whole wheat in a bread, which worked out well, and tried a pre-made ragi crêpe mix, which was not as successful (probably user error). A ragi breakfast cereal was also interesting.

Ragi as a “super grain”?

Given its nutritional profile and unique taste, ragi seems to stand out among the millets, meriting the moniker “super grain.” (A web search will turn up a number of articles on ragi / finger millet as a super grain, as well as a number of others grouping millets together as one super grain.)

As a crop, ragi is drought hardy like many other millets, and is adapted to high altitudes and diverse climates. It requires much less soil nitrogen to produce, but evidently responds well to fertilizer (not a given with all crops). On the other hand, management and harvest are labor intensive. All together, however, one could imagine that ragi has an important future as a crop and food in regions like the US that do not yet know it well.

The next post in this series is “Four millets: 3. Foxtail millet, or xiaomi.”

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Four millets: 1. Pearl millet, or bajri

Pearl millet from Wikipedia CommonsPearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) is the first if the four millets to be described in this series of posts. It is the most widely cultivated of the millets and the sixth most important grain worldwide. Being primarily a tropical and semi-arid land crop, it is not well known in the West. Probably first domesticated in Sahelian West Africa, it has spread throughout Africa and is also a major crop in South Asia, notably Rajasthan, India.

It is described in Lost Crops of Africa, PROTA4U, Feedipedia, and the ICRISAT site. In the US, pearl millet is mostly grown for animal feed, but I wonder about expanded cultivation as a food crop in drier or drought prone areas.

pearl-bajri crosswordOther English names for this grain include bulrush millet and cattail millet. It has names in the languages of regions that cultivate it, and of these, the most common are probably from the Indian subcontinent: alternately bajra (बाजरा ; Hindi, Punjabi ; باجرا  Urdu) or bajri (बाजरी ; Rajasthani, Gujarati and Marathi) or variations thereof.

West Africa

I personally got to know pearl millet/bajri first in Togo and then better while in Mali, where as in the rest of the Sahel it is a major crop and staple. It is commonly used in a “stiff porridge” (actually like a dough ball – in Bambara called to – pronounced toh; in African French, pâte) which is eaten with a sauce, as couscous, as a confection known as dɛgɛ (deh-geh; in French dégué), or in at least 2 kinds of (thin) porridge. For all of these it is pounded or milled to a flour – fine or coarse (other grains can be substituted, but obviously have their own taste). Staying with the Bambara examples:

  • to is basically the fine flour cooked in water (with a lot of stirring)
  • the Sahelian couscous (in Bambara there are several names, such as basi) is made with a coarser flour, steamed – same cooking process as for the internationally known wheat semolina-based Maghrebian couscous
  • dɛgɛ is traditionally made from cooked millet, curds, sugar, and perhaps fruit of baobab
  • mɔni is a lumpy loose porridge made from millet flour, with some of the flour rolled into small balls, and sugar
  • seri is a porridge made with cracked millet, curds, and sugar

The Fulani in Mali also make a kind of dried couscous – lacciri joordi – combined with ground peanut/groundnut and perhaps pepper, to which water or milk can be added – sort of a fast food.

Also in West Africa, a millet beer is also made with pearl millet – less often in a Muslim Sahelian country like Mali than in a coastal one like Togo.

India

India is the largest producer of pearl millet in the world. The grain is a staple, one source referring to it as “the poor man’s staple.” However it is also used for non-food purposes such as fodder.

Bajra/bajri appears in various foods like bhakri bread, rotla/roti bread, and idli cakes – and certainly much more (my knowledge on this is limited).  It is also exported.

In the U.S.

A year and half ago I found bajri flour in a local Indian market. The labeling did not make clear which kind of millet it was, but from the color I assumed it was pearl millet and was able to verify that online.

This was actually the first time I came across this grain in the U.S.  Since then I’ve noticed it in some other international markets in Northern Virginia.

I’ve primarily used bajri in breakfast oatmeal – combining about 1/4 cup with just under 1 3/4 cups oatmeal to give it a different taste and texture. Also tried in pancakes with okay results. Eventually I plan to make a kind of lacciri. These are very limited experiments, really done by-the-way for some variety

Pearl millet/bajri is apparently grown in parts of the southern US, but mainly for animal feed. It would be interesting to know if any of the production is sold for food for people in the US, and in what forms it is used.

The next post in this series is “Four millets: 2. Finger millet, or ragi.”

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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:

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“Lost Crops of Africa”


Lost Crops of Africa: …

Read this FREE online!Full Book

The third and final volume of the Lost Crops of Africa series was recently published by the National Academies Press. Its topic is Fruits. I just received a copy, as well as a one of the second volume on Vegetables, which was published two years ago. Vol. 1 on Grains was published in 1996.

In that gap of time is a story, but the good news is that this project has finally been brought to a successful conclusion, the result of an incredible effort by Dr. Noel Vietmeyer and Mark Dafforn. The concept is that there are a lot of important cultivated and wild foods native to Africa that are neglected in research and planning, and so in effect “lost” beyond the local areas where they are well known.

Taken together the three volumes profile 11 cultivated and several wild grains, 18 vegetables, and 24 cultivated and wild fruits. I won’t list them here, but hope to take a few moments to highlight individual species and my comments on them in the future.

I had the privilege of contributing briefly to this project in the early stages, mainly as an intern in 1992 with an office of the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council called BOSTID (Board on Science and Technology for Development). At the time the plan was for a six volume series covering grains, cultivated fruits, wild fruits, vegetables, legumes, and roots and tubers. As I was told, the idea grew out of an earlier successful project on Lost Crops of the Incas (1989), but that it very quickly it became apparent that in the case of Africa there were quite a lot of species of interest.

Unfortunately BOSTID, which had done a lot of quality (and interesting) publications since its establishment in 1970, disappeared into another office in a mid 1990s reorganization and the Lost Crops of Africa project was put on hold. Funding was found to publish Vol. 1 in 1996, but then the effort relied on Noel and Mark, and a decision was made to condense the rest of the series into two volumes. Mark led the project to ultimately complete editing and publication (sponsored by the Africa Bureau and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance of USAID). Incredible, but altogether the effort spanned 20 years. Mark and Noel deserve a huge amount of credit for their perseverance on this project.

I haven’t found any reviews of volumes two and three, but from quick perusal these cover the quite a number of species in the same highly readable style of vol. 1 (which was summarized in the New York Times on April 23, 1996; see also a review in ODI’s Natural Resource Perspectives 23 [9/97], and a short critical perspective on H-Africa).

Altogether the contribution of this series is in bringing various edible plant species to broader attention in a world that focuses – at its risk – on a few cultivars of a few main crops. Having this information in book format is of obvious use (such volumes from the BOSTID are still referenced in the field and these post-BOSTID volumes will continue to be as well, no doubt). Much has changed since the first volume was published in terms of the technologies for disseminating information, and I’m given to think that a wiki format to complement the online versions of the books could facilitate updates and ongoing contributions by specialists in the field. That would assure the longer term impact of this important work as a living resource. Who would set it up and maintain it is another issue.

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