The History of Millet

While millet might be considered a fairly new food to some, millet is actually much older and wiser than any of us. Millet has been around for centuries and has been an everyday staple in diets across the nation because of its nutritious properties and ability to fend for itself in a diversity of growing conditions.  It is hard to tell exactly when and where Millet originated, but historians believe that millet was first discovered in South East Asia, specifically during the Neolithic period in China sometime during the around 2000 BC, “In China, records of culture for foxtail and proso millet extend back to 2000 to 1000 BC Foxtail millet probably originated in southern Asia and is the oldest of the cultivated millets”(Oelke). Millet was even mentioned in the Old Testament in Ezekiel 4;9, “But take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt; put them in a single container and make them into bread for yourself. This is what you are to eat during the 390 days that you lie on your side.” Millet was an important staple food throughout history, providing a filling meal rich in whole grain carbohydrates, iron, and protein.

Millet has been stealing the show way before rice and wheat became an everyday commodity because it is such a low maintenance crop. Before proper irrigation systems were invented, Millet was (and still is!) a dream come true because of its drought-resistant growing properties.  Wheat and rice, on the other hand, require lots of water and tending to and have less nutritional value, making millet an easy choice. When hungry families needed to fill their bellies fast and without spending much, they used millet to make porridges, bread, and other dishes, but one creation, in particular, makes millet a truly underrated celebrity.  It has been argued that the first noodle ever made was made out of millet flour, “In 2005 in northwestern China archeologists unearthed a perfectly preserved 4000-year-old bowl containing long yellow noodles made from foxtail millet.”(edenfoods). While today the typical noodle is usually made with wheat, the hungry people of the Neolithic era discovered the potential millet has to make an abundance of different foods, they even considered it one of the 5 sacred foods, “The earliest written record of millet, “Fan Shen Chih Shu” 2800 BC, gives detailed instructions for growing and storing the grain, and lists it as one of the five sacred Chinese crops along with soybeans, rice, wheat, and barley.”(edenfoods).

Europe quickly caught on to this trend during the Bronze age, a proverb was found scratched on a solum in the peristyle of the House of M Holconius Rufus at Pompeii reads, “If you want to waste your time, scatter millet and pick it up again”.(edenfoods). During the Roman empire circa 753 BC-610 AD millet was not seen in a sacred light like it was in China, but a reliable crop that farmers could grow for cheap on a small amount of land, making millet accessible for the rich, poor and everyone in-between. The Romans were in the midst of building an empire, fighting off their enemies and establishing their prominence, so they needed quick nourishment.  Word of the wondrous properties of millet spread throughout Europe fast, ”There is evidence that millet was grown during the Stone Age by lake dwellers in Switzerland and was eaten in Northern Europe at least since the Iron Age”. Neighboring countries like Greece weren’t about to get left behind on this bandwagon either, “Greek historian Herodotus wrote that millet grew so tall in Assyria that he could not give its height for fear that he would not be believed.”(edenfoods).

Today, Millet is still a part of an everyday diet for many people nationwide.  Millet’s ability to grow with even the most rudimentary care, along with its nutritional density are just some of the reasons so many populations have made millet a fundamental aspect in their diet. In fact, “millet ranks 6th in world area production”(harvestchoice.org).  Populations such as sub-Saharan Africa that face issues like poverty, lack of clean water and overall shortage of nutritionally dense food have adopted millet as a staple in their diet, so much so that millet is Africa’s most popular carbohydrate, “Countries that face severe famine such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Uganda have a heavy reliance on millet, with it taking up almost 66 percent of their daily cereal crop consumption, making it their number one source for carbohydrates each day”(Scott).   Popular everyday millet dishes in sub-Saharan Africa include millet patties, Hausa Koko (spicy millet porridge) and Masa, a pancake style thin bread made from millet. These dishes are fairly easy to make, keep you feeling full and give you energy, all key aspects when trying to feed lots of hungry people.

Closely following sub-Saharan Africa’s lead, “In sub-Saharan Africa [millet] is the 3rd most widely grown crop. Africa produces 56% of the world output”(harvestchoice),India ranks as the number one producer of millet.  India has one of the largest populations in the world as well as one of the largest populations of vegetarians and vegans making millet the star of everyday traditional Indian cuisine, “They use it to make whole grain chapatti flat bread, soups, and porridge. In arid Western India, millet is used to make roti, a dense, flat cake made from millet”(edenfoods).   

The world would be a very different place if it wasn’t for this tiny round shape grain.  Millet has taken on the task of feeding millions of hungry people regardless of their food allergies, sensitive stomachs or social class, a commodity that can be truly enjoyed by anyone!  Millet has brought families and communities together over hot, delicious and nutritionally satisfying meals, just one of the many reasons we love this little grain so much! Rollingreens is passionate about food that brings you closer to health, happiness, and fulfillment, all of which wouldn’t be possible without our beloved millet.  Thank you millet, for all you do!

Millet. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://harvestchoice.org/commodities/millet

Millet Notes. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.edenfoods.com/articles/view.php?articles_id=122

Oelke, E. (n.d.). Millets. Retrieved from https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/millet.html

Scott, A., & Scott, A. (n.d.). The History of Millet. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/19353601/The_History_of_Millet