best natural foods

What is millet? Bird seed?

Not many people seem to know what is millet - even though it is a grain that is very widely eaten across the world, for a very long time.

Millet, a small, round yellow grain, had been cultivated in East Asia for over 10,000 years and it is believed to have been the priniciple food for the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans before they started eating rice.

In Chinese culture, millets are considered TWO of the "five sacred grains". There are different listings of these five important crops. One list includes wheat, rice, proso millet (which is larger), foxtail millet (which is smaller) and soybeans. Another list excludes rice but includes hempseed - along with the two varieties of millet.

So millet appears to have a more important place in Chinese culture than rice!

Yet in spite of me being Chinese, I never knew what is millet until I ate it for the first time when I was introduced to macrobiotics in 1989, at age 34.

I should add that it was a positive introduction. I was served a dish of millet topped with grated raw carrot mixed with lemon juice. I found it rather delicious.

It was the first time in my life I ate a grain that was not rice or wheat (as noodles or bread). The only other grain I knew at that time was barley but I never ate it, only drank barley water.

Yet the first time I ate millet, I could recognise right away what it is - "bird seed". When I was a child, I used to visit a pet shop near my house and I always noticed those small seeds fed to the birds.

Ah! So that is millet! Subsequently, when I conducted macrobiotic workshops, people would inevitably ask what is millet and most would understand when I told them that it is "bird seed".

A universal food

When I did more research about what is millet, I discovered that it is not just a grain eaten by the Chinese and other East Asians, but by people all over the world.

Millet is also widely eaten in India and several major varieties of millet have Indian names.

India is, in fact, the world's biggest producer of millet. China ranks fourth and most of the other leading producers are African countries like Nigeria, Niger,  China, Burkina Faso (I did not even realise such a country existied) Mali, Sudan, Uganda, Chad and Ethiopia.

A cheap grain

Looking at the leading producers of millet, it is perhaps understandable why people like me in more modern and affluent societies do not know what is millet. For it seems that millet is more widely produced and eaten in lesser developed and poorer societies in India, Africa and China.

My macrobiotic friend Genevieve once travelled to India and she was amazed at how incredibly cheap millet cost there. If I recall correctly, it was a little more than US 10 cents per kilogram.

Somehow, millet is associated as a food for the poor and this could be a reason why it tends not to be eaten by people in more modern, developed societies. Growing up as a Chinese - albeit not in China - I have yet to see millet dishes served whether in restaurants, not even by street hawkers.

Yet this is not totally the case. The Germans and Russians eat millet too - mostly as millet porridge. Interestingly, they eat it sweet. Russians eat millet cooked with milk and sugar while Germans eat it cooked with apples and sweetened with honey.

On my own, I had cooked millet porridge with sweet vegetables like pumpkin or sweet potato and I later found out this is how the Chinese traditionally cook millet as well. Click here for more discussions on what is millet and some millet recipes.

Incidentally, millet is also commonly used for brewing beer and other alcholic beverages - by people in China, Taiwan, Nepal, Africa and Balkan countries like Romania and Bulgaria.

And, millet research is being conducted in India as well as in the United States, by the Agriculture Research Service, the main research arm of the US Department of Agriculture. So millet is truly a universal food, even though many people (in modern societies) do not know what is millet.

A healthy grain

Those who do know what is millet would most probably have been introduced to it through macrobiotics, or other health movements that emphasise eating whole grains.

In addition, some get to know what is millet because of a need to avoid gluten, the protein found in wheat and related grains like barley and rye. These include people who suffer from Celiac disease, as well as those on a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet, such as families with autistic children.

Millet, being gluten free, may be safely consumed by people on gluten-free diets. It has also been made into a variety of gluten-free products including bread, pasta and breakfast cereals.

In the context of modern societies, then, if you ask what is millet, those who know will associated it not as a "poor man's food" but more as a health food.

Millet is indeed healthy. It is a whole grain and has all the benefits of whole grains, including fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.

The protein content of millet is similar to that of wheat = about 11 percent by weight. In terms of vitamins. millet is rich in the B vitamins, especially niacin (B3), vitamin B6 and folic acid (B9). Minerals present in millet include calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and zinc.

A convenient, palatable whole grain

Those who have discovered what is millet will also know it as a whole grain that is both easy to accept and easy to cook.

Unlike other whole grains, it is not chewy and therefore easily acceptable by those not yet accustomed to eating whole grains. This is despite the fact that millet contains moderate amounts of fiber - about 8.5 percent, which is only half as much as barley (17 percent). Compared to brown rice (3.5 percent fiber), millet contains more than double the amount of fiber yet it is not as chewy as brown rice.

The other thing good about millet is that it cooks quickly - in about 20 minutes, which is half the time needed to cook other whole grains like brown rice or barley. It cooks even faster than steel cut oats - but, of course, not as quickly as rolled oats. This makes millet porridge an excellent breakfast food that can be quickly prepared.

An alkalinizing grain

Another quality that defines what is millet makes it unique among grains.

All other grains, including rice, wheat, barley, oats, etc, are acid-forming, meaning they turn the body condition acidic when digested. Millet is the only grain that is alkaline-forming.

Some people consider grains to be "bad" for health because a healthy body condition is supposed to be slightly alkaline. But this is not a big issue because the correct way of eating grains is, firstly, to cook grains with a bit of salt and also eat them with mainly salty accompanying dishes. The minerals present in salt will create an alkaline body environment.

Secondly, grains are supposed to be chewed well and chewing again makes the body alkaline, since the saliva of a healthy person is slightly alkaline.

So the fact that millet is not acid-forming is more of a "bonus" factor rather than an indication that other grains should be avoided or minimised.

Nourishment for the pancreas

Another point to consider about what is millet is how it is classified in traditional Chinese medicine. In the Oriental concept of yin and yang, these two basic energies are further divided into five "transformations" - fire, soil, metal, water and wood / tree.

Millet is classified as having soil energy, which means it produces a "settling down" effect the way soil settles down on the earth. This energy is associated with the stomach, spleen and pancreas and millet is said to nourish these organs.

This means that millet is a grain particularly beneficial to people with stomach, spleen and pancreas weaknesses and disorders. People with diabetes, in particular, would do well to learn more about what is millet.

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