The millets are a group of highly variable small-seeded grasses, widely grown around the world as cereal crops or grains for both human food and animal feed. They are important crops in the semi-arid tropics of Asia and Africa, with 97% of millet production in developing countries. The crop is favoured due to its productivity and short growing season under dry, high temperature conditions. While millets are indigenous to many parts of the world, millets most likely had an evolutionary origin in tropical western Africa. Millets have been important food staples in human history, particularly in Asia and Africa, and they have been in cultivation in East Asia for the last 10,000 years.
The most widely grown millet is pearl millet, and can be nearly white, pale yellow, brown, grey, slate blue or purple, and is an important crop in India and parts of Africa. Finger millet, proso millet, and foxtail millet are also important crop species. The colour of finger millet grains varies from white through orange-red, deep brown, purple, to almost black and the grains are smaller than those of pearl millet.
Millets are less important in the developed world. For example, in the United States the only significant crop is proso millet, which is mostly grown for birdseed.
Experts believe the cultivation of millets was of greater prevalence in prehistory than rice, especially in northern China and Korea. Millets also formed important parts of the prehistoric diet in Indian, Chinese Neolithic and Korean Mumun societies. Some of the earliest evidence of millet cultivation in China includes a 4,000-year-old well-preserved bowl containing well-preserved noodles made from foxtail millet and broomcorn millet, found at the Lajia archaeological site.
Millet made its way from China to the Black Sea region of Europe by 5000 BC. The cultivation of common millet as the earliest dry crop in East Asia has been attributed to its resistance to drought and no doubt aided its spread.
Pearl millet is one of the two major crops in the semi-arid, less fertile agricultural regions of Africa and Southeast Asia. Millets are not only adapted to poor, droughty and infertile soils, but they are also more reliable under these conditions than most other grain crops. This has, in part, made millet production popular, particularly in countries surrounding the Sahara Desert in western Africa. The top millet producing countries are primarily in Asia and Africa.
Use of millet ranges from candied puff in Japan to roti in India, to porridge in Russian, German and Chinese cuisines or combined with meat and vegetables to make stews, as well as for producing alcoholic drinks.
Per capita consumption of millets as food varies: it is highest in western Africa, but is also an important food item for the population living in the drier parts of eastern and central Africa. In developing countries outside Africa, millet has local significance as a food in parts of some countries, such as China, India, Myanmar and North Korea. However, the use of millet as food has been falling since the ‘70s, both in urban and rural areas, as developing countries such as India have experienced rapid economic growth and witnessed a significant increase in per capita consumption of other cereals.
Millets are also used as bird and animal feed.
Millets are important grains used in brewing millet beer in some cultures, such as the Tao people of Orchid Island and in Taiwan. In East Africa a drink is brewed from millet or sorghum known as ajono, the traditional brew of the Teso. Fermented millet is prepared in a large pot with hot water and people share the drink by sipping it through long straws.
Millet is also the base ingredient for the distilled liquor rakshi in Nepal and the indigenous alcoholic drink of the Sherpa, Tamang, Rai and Limbu people; it’s also called tongba in eastern Nepal. In Balkan countries, especially Romania and Bulgaria, millet is used to prepare the fermented drink boza.