Category Archives: agriculture/food

Four millets: 4. Proso millet

Panicum-milaceum-panicle-119x150Proso millet (Panicum miliaceum) is the fourth millet to be profiled in this series and the third most widely produced in the world. It may have originated in what is now northeastern China, but spread to other parts of Asia and to Europe in ancient times.

Proso is described on the sites of the Agricultural Marketing Research Center, Feedipedia, and ICRISAT. A blog on millets has a couple of photos of the plant.

Other English names include broom corn or broom corn millet, broomtail millet, and quite a few others according to US National Plant Germplasm System (though curiously their list does not include “proso”) and Wikipedia. Various color names are associated with this millet – red, brown, white – with “yellow proso” being the variety commonly sold for human consumption in the US (interestingly, the Chinese word for hulled proso millet, 黃米  huángmǐ, also refers to yellow color). According to one source, the term “edible millet” in the US refers to proso, and the term “common millet” is sometimes also applied, though that is problematic on several levels. The name “proso” comes from several Slavic languages (in the Cyrillic script it is просо).Pmillet-proso-proso

Proso is the most adapted of the four main millets to northern climates, being the main millet cultivated in Russia and the US. Like other millets, it can be grown on poorer soils. Although pearl millet/bajri and foxtail millet/xiaomi  are produced more worldwide, proso is actually more important on the world import/export market.

Proso only relatively recently became important in the US – during the 19th century, foxtail millet was more widely cultivated (mainly for forage). And production has also increased in recent years – a 2003 crop profile noted a dramatic increase over the preceding decade. The main use of proso in the US is for birdseed, and to lesser degrees as forage and as a food for people.

There’s millet, and then there’s millet

In 1987, when I had just come back to the US after spending 7 out of the preceding 8 years overseas – and 6 ½ of those in West Africa where I got to know pearl millet as “millet” – I went to the local East Lansing Food Coop, near where I had moved in Michigan, and found a bulk “millet” for sale. Surprised, since I had never seen “millet” before in an American foodstore – but also noting that the grains were smaller than what I had seen in Africa, and yellow instead of a duller, almost gray color – I bought some to try. Nothing like what I remembered.

I later found out that this was in fact an entirely different species of millet, usually called proso. Fast forward almost three decades to suburban Washington, DC, and bulk proso millet is still sold as “millet” (or actually “hulled millet” since proso is one of those millets that need to be hulled) in organic foods stores (photos below from Whole Foods and MOM’s Organic Market in northern Virginia).

bulk-millet

Proso millet is also sold in packages, but packaged products with “millet” in the list of ingredients are not necessarily proso millet. How to tell the difference will be one of the topics in the next post, “Four millets: More grains and the ‘millet spectrum.’”

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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.

As an encouragement to get specific about millets, I will profile the four main species 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.

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

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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VOA features on Lost Crops

The Voice of America (VOA) is planning two sets of 5 features on the Lost Crops of Africa. The first, created by VOA correspondent Cole Mallard is scheduled to air in about 4 weeks, according to information from Bill Eagle, another VOA correspondent who is working on the second set of features.

The first set includes: an overview; one feature each on fruits, vegetables and grains; and consideration of the future of Lost Crops.

I hope to post additional information closer to the actual broadcasts.

In 2006, VOA special English had a feature on Lost Crops.

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