Millet isn’t one plant. It refers to several – often very distantly related – species of cereal grasses that have been cultivated for their small edible seeds for thousands of years.
Millets were some of the first grains ever domesticated by humans and have continued to play a vital role across Asia, Africa and Europe ever since.
It was only relatively recently that this mighty crop fell out of favor. But, thanks to a concerted effort, this versatile grain has made a comeback that any celebrity would be proud of. This year is officially the International Year of Millets, as declared by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Rice is first cultivated around China’s Yangtze River and Yellow River – over 1,000 years after millet had adorned people’s tables.
Little millet begins to be domesticated on the Indian subcontinent.
Millets and their wild ancestors, such as barnyard grass and panic grass, are first cultivated in Japan.
We see the first evidence of the cultivation of pearl millet in Mali, where the wild plant is found. Today, millet still accounts for about 40 percent of the country’s cereal food consumption per capita.
Pearl millet is first found on the Indian subcontinent, presumably having been brought from Africa. This type of millet is known as ‘bajra’ in India and is most commonly grown in the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.
The oldest noodles ever found, made of two varieties of millet, were discovered in an earthenware bowl dating from this period.
For the next 2800-ish years, millet enjoyed popularity around the globe. Numerous types have been cultivated and eaten for centuries, particularly in arid and semiarid regions. It appears in cuisines and cultures around the world, including:
Millet flatbread (bajra roti) from India
Millet porridge in Russia, Germany and China
Sweet puffed millet snacks called awaokoshi in Japan
An alcoholic drink called tongba in Nepal, Bhutan and the Indian regions of Sikkim and Darjeeling.
A spicy millet porridge, koko, in Nigeria and Ghana.
The sweet snack bánh đa kê in Vietnam.
And, of course, as a staple cereal in many countries worldwide.
During this period, millet is also cultivated as a grazing crop, planted to feed animals such as cattle and sheep.
Text by Eden Flaherty
Illustrations by Inês Mateus
Produced by Eden Flaherty