Wednesday Weed – Millet

Millet

Dear Readers, when I was writing about winter feeding for the birds yesterday, I couldn’t help but remember the millet that we used to feed to our budgerigar when we were children. I’ve eaten it myself too, especially when I was first a vegetarian back in the early ’80s. I remember the health food shops with their sacks of grains and jars of dried beans, the tins of tomatoes and the overwhelming smell of herbal teabags. Back then, being a vegetarian really was a radical thing to do, and people would practically call for an ambulance if you fessed up to being a vegan. How things change! These days the trendiest people are ‘plant-based’ and Marks and Spencer is selling vegan ready meals, and very nice they are too. Maybe it’s time for me to look again at millet.

Millets are grasses, and several species labour under the name. The commonest one is pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), which has been grown since prehistoric times, and comes originally from Africa. What a tough plant it is! It can tolerate drought, high temperatures, high salinity and high acidity. Wheat and barley would both keel over under these conditions, but millet just keeps going. In India it’s made into a flatbread called baajre ki roti .

Photo One by By Vikram Nankani - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82240984

Millet flatbread (Photo One)

In Western Africa, millet is grown alongside sorghum and cowpeas, the three crops together providing an insurance policy in case one of them fails. As millet is high in energy, calcium and protein it’s no wonder that it’s been turned into a fermented drink in Nigeria, Nepal and India,  a porridge in Namibia, and a sweet snack in Hanoi, where the millet is combined with dried coconut.

Photo Two byBy Minh28397 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74894620

Bánh đa kê, a sweet snack from Hanoi (Photo Two)

Furthermore, millet has no gluten, so it’s a very useful food for people with coeliac disease or gluten intolerance. I seem to remember making a kind of porridge with it, with stewed apricots and yoghurt, and very nice it was too. There might even have been some flaked almonds involved.

Anyone would think it was getting close to dinner time 🙂 However, millet can exacerbate thyroid problems, so don’t go completely mad on the millet bread. In fact, goitres and other signs of iodine inefficiencies are widespread amongst people for whom millet is a staple, so it’s definitely a food to eat in smallish quantities (if you have any choice).

Millet is also used as a fodder crop for sheep and cattle. It is what’s known as a C4 plant, which means that it can photosynthesise more efficiently at high temperatures than most plants, and lose water at a much slower rate. Only about 3% of plants photosynthesise in this way, but a C4 grass like millet loses about 277 molecules of water per CO2 molecule fixed, as opposed to 833 molecules of water in a ‘normal’ grass. No wonder this ancient grain has been such a staple right across the dry zones of the world. And no wonder that scientists have been experimenting to try to change rice, which is a ‘normal’ grass, to a C4 plant, which would be much more water-efficient..

Photo Three by By Kaitha Poo Manam - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63290410

Sprouting Millet (Photo Three)

And finally, a poem. Apparently, when Chinese Emperors wanted to know how the ‘common people’ were feeling, they would send people out from the court into the countryside to hear what people were singing. And how universal were the themes that were collected! Conscripted soldiers sang about missing their homes, and about the long, hard marches, and the fact that their clothes were full of holes. But there was also a lament about the tax collectors who would take a proportion of the food that the peasants grew, sometimes leaving the farmers themselves hungry. I think we can take it that the ‘Big rat’ in the poem below is not a rodent.

“Big Rat, Big Rat,” from the Book of Songs

Big rat, big rat,
Do not gobble our millet!
Three years we have slaved for you,
Yet you take no notice of us.
At last we are going to leave you
And go to that happy land;
Happy land, happy land,
Where we shall have our place.

Big rat, big rat,
Do not gobble our corn!
Three years we have slaved for you,
Yet you give us no credit.
At last we are going to leave you
And go to that happy kingdom …

Photo Four by Hari. K Patibanda from https://www.flickr.com/photos/krishnacolor/50262925781

Plum-headed parakeets on millet in India (Photo Four)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Vikram Nankani – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82240984

Photo Two byBy Minh28397 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74894620

Photo Three by By Kaitha Poo Manam – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63290410

Photo Four by Hari. K Patibanda from https://www.flickr.com/photos/krishnacolor/50262925781

4 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Millet

  1. Anne

    There is millet in the wild bird seed I purchase from the farmer’s co-op.You might be interested to know that the surname Millet means ‘the son of Mille,’ which is either Miles, from the diminutive Mill ot, or Mille, the nickname of Millicent – a popular girl’s name in the 13th and 14th centuries, especially in Yorkshire.

    Reply

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