In the new millenium, grain trends move about as fast as fashion. From 2006 to 2013, as we were shimmying out of our skinny jean fetish and into our bland beige normcore phase, we were consuming quinoa at such an outrageous rate that crop prices tripled, making the Andean staple almost unaffordable in its native region.
Maturing into dadcore in 2017, we got obsessed with what we call "ancient grains," and added amaranth and Kamut to the list of old-timers that were suddenly hot. 2019 was undeniably the year of the jumpsuit, and also the year of the farro bowl. Now here we are in 2020, buffeted by an unending string of catastrophes, looking for something starchy to hold on to. This, friends, is where millet comes in.
Millet, like many recently trendy grains, has history—it’s been consumed for around 7,000 years. But like quinoa or buckwheat, it’s not technically a grain at all, but rather the seeds of a family of hearty grasses. It’s an important staple in cultures throughout Afro-Eurasia, with a place in cuisines ranging from Namibia to Germany to North Korea.
And for those trend-chasers among us currently whiplashed by the competing fads of gluten-free dieting and sourdough bread baking, take comfort in the knowledge that millet has a place in both camps. The seeds are gluten-free, but they can add some satisfying crunch as mix-ins for your crusty loaves.
There are several kinds of millet in cultivation around the world, each with its own characteristics. There’s deep red finger millet, popcorn yellow foxtail millet, pale barnyard millet, to name a few. In the US, if you see a package simply labeled millet, it’s probably proso millet, a medium sized variety with a mild taste. In most of the recipes below, feel free to use whatever millet you have on hand.
One of the shortfalls of the fast fashioning of heritage grains is the paradoxical attitude that everything that’s old enough is cool, and everything that’s cool enough is new. Teff? That’s old. Must be cool. The reality is that most of these old grains have time-honored places in highly developed cuisines, and that those of us who are just now learning about them had best take note.
Teff, for example, is the basis of Ethiopian/Eritrean injera, a spongy, fermented bread that really is the best way I can imagine to use teff. Now I’m not an extremist here. I’d never argue with Alice Medrich, who whips up all sorts of delicious baked goods with teff, corn, sorghum, and other heritage grains. But when approaching millet, we’re going to look at it in context––in traditional dishes from the cuisines that know it best.
Porridge is a major plank in my crisis management platform, and millet porridge is particularly soothing and satisfying. It also has representation across the globe, with notable examples in Chinese, West African, and Austrian cuisines.
Xiao Mi Zhou (Chinese Millet Sweet Potato Porridge)
This ambidextrous dish can swing sweet or savory depending on the toppings. Add soy, pickled vegetables, and smoked tofu for a satisfying breakfast or part of a composed dinner, or sprinkle some sugar in at the last minute to bring out the sweetness of the potatoes. You can even cut out the sweet potatoes entirely, if you prefer.
Fura da Nono (Fulani Millet Porridge with Chiles & Ginger)
Popular as a street snack through much of West Africa, fura is traditionally prepared by the Fulani people of Ghana, Nigeria, and Niger. First, millet is ground into a flour and seasoned with ginger, cloves, chilies, and other spices before being formed into balls and cooked. These balls are then mixed with sugar and fermented milk to form a hearty, soul-warming porridge.
Bajra Raabdi (Rajasthani Millet Porridge)
In Rajasthan, a thin porridge (or a thick beverage, depending on your perspective) is made from fermented millet flour and yogurt. Sprinkle it with cumin or black pepper and serve it by the cupful.
Austrian Millet Porridge
Finally, here’s a simple breakfast porridge that pairs millet with milk, apples, and honey. Oatmeal, step aside.
Savory Millet Dishes
Tartine Millet Porridge Sourdough
Arikalu Idli (South Indian Kodo Millet Idli)
Idli are steamed dumplings, commonly made of fermented rice and urad dal (black gram). But made with kodo millet, these pillowy snacks take on a deeper color and a satisfying nutty character. They can be made with ragi (finger millet) as well.
Ragi Mudde (Karnataka Finger Millet Balls)
Serve these balls of boiled millet meal with a rich curry or sambar.
Massa (Hausa rice/millet crepes)
These crepes, made with either rice or millet, are a popular street snack in Benin. Serve them with hot sauce or sweet syrup.
Kalkandu Sadham (Tamil Millet & Palm Sugar Dessert)
Austrian Millet Plum Cake
Imagine Marian Burros’s Plum Torte but packed with healthy whole grains, honey, and protein-packed cheese curds. Now imagine eating a slice in the Alps wearing lederhosen. That’s what this cake is all about.