Why you should care
Because it’s good for the environment, it’s good for the body and it tastes good.
Millet. It’s another one of those life staples that’s prevalent across much of the globe — like Celsius or hemp — but never seemed to take root in the ever-singular US of A. Most Americans probably wouldn’t even recognize it on a supermarket shelf; I hadn’t heard of it until earlier this year, when I was doing one of those “clean eating” diets and found a recipe for millet risotto. Amid the uncertainties born of climate change, though, the tough and tiny grain now finds itself front and center in an entire movement to diversify the country’s cereal grains.
In California, the drought has become a palpable part of day-to-day life for everyone. But the farmers, forced to rethink their livelihoods, have it the worst. That’s where millet comes in. The durable grain requires minimal watering compared to other starches like wheat or corn, and it thrives in skeletal soils, so there’s no need for synthetic fertilizers. A UC Berkeley group is currently experimenting with small-scale millet cultivation in the northern part of the state through The Millet Project, which aims to isolate varieties suited to particular microclimates. “It’s about farming with the environment and not having monocultures,” says Patricia Bubner, a postdoc researcher at Berkeley who grew up eating millet in Austria.
It’s gluten-free, but it also has a higher protein, mineral, vitamin and fiber content than corn, rice or wheat.
As ancient-grain trendsetters move on from quinoa, culinary artisans have been on the hunt for the next “it” grain. With its unique texture and nuanced flavor, millet is a strong contender. And all the sentimental environmental reasoning aside, millet is a nutritional wunderkind. Yes, it’s gluten-free, but it also has a higher protein, mineral, vitamin and fiber content than corn, rice or wheat. (A warning to those with thyroid issues: Millet contains goitrogens, which can be problematic.) At Big Sur Bakery it’s included in the nine-grain pancakes and sprinkled on the so-called birdseed muffin. Or it can be used in savory dishes — millet patties, millet pilaf, millet pasta salad. Bubner’s favorite way to eat millet: cooked with milk, cinnamon and honey, topped with chopped apple. Whole Foods sells it with other bulk grains, as other special grocers often do, or Bob’s Red Mill sells a 28-ounce bag for $3.09.
The term millet actually refers to an entire family of small-seeded grass crops. The most common varieties, though, are pearl, foxtail, proso and finger millet. In India, the latter, called ragi, is used to make the flatbread roti. Pearl millet is most common in Africa and is cooked differently across the continent, whether for porridge, couscous, beer or to make the Ethiopian bread known as injera. In Asia, it’s thought that the hearty grain was the staple cereal centuries ago — before rice. But in America, millet has been for the birds, literally: It’s the primary ingredient in most birdseed.
It’s been slow to catch on in the U.S. partly because it’s tricky to cook with. “It can be a hard grain to use,” warns Big Sur Bakery owner Michelle Rizzolo. Baking with millet requires the grain to be ground down with a hand mill. It also doesn’t take on moisture, so you wouldn’t want, for instance, a whole millet muffin, Rizzolo adds.
It’s worth experimenting with, though. As the need for agricultural diversity becomes real, we’re going to have to figure out ways to work with the environment instead of against it. Fittingly, the Chinese signs for millet and mouth together mean “harmony.”