Millet is a collective term for a variety of grasses that produce small, rounded seeds that are harvested for food. These grasses are also called the millets, and there are five varieties in commercial production: browntop, foxtail, pearl, proso, and barnyard. It originated in Africa, where it still forms a crucial staple today, over 4,000 years ago. Millet is also widely grown across much of southern Asia and is one of the world's major grain crops.
A hardy annual, millet is capable of growing in conditions that would kill other crops. It thrives in intense heat and poor soil, which makes it a natural choice for areas of the world that are turning into deserts. Millet can be relatively easily grown and is harvested like other grains, with the stalks being used for fuel, fodder, and bedding, while the grains are threshed. The grain can be turned into flour, as in India where it is used to make chapatis, or steamed and eaten whole.
Millet has high concentrations of numerous vitamins, as well as a high volume of protein — a little over 1/10 of the grain is protein. In addition, it is gluten free. Millet also grows quickly and can be harvested as soon as three months after planting, providing an opportunity to get two or even three crops in a year. It is less susceptible to pests than some other grains, and can be grown without the use of expensive pesticides as a result. There is some concern about sensitivity to fungus in nations that have developed genetically uniform strains targeted at increasing yields.
In developing nations, millet is used for food, animal bedding, construction materials, and forage fodder for animals. The grain, especially pearl millet, is thoroughly integrated into the lives of people living in Africa and India and is considered one of the four most important staple crops in these regions. In the first world, it has fallen out of favor for human consumption and is primarily used in commercial birdseed and other animal foods.
Millet has a fairly mild flavor, which can be enhanced by lightly toasting the seeds before cooking. The faint nutty taste is relatively unobtrusive, and the grain is often seasoned with spices and herbs to make it less bland. However, the blandness also makes it well suited as food for people who are sick and having difficulty keeping food down. While still unpopular in the majority of the West, millet is beginning to enter the public imagination with the proliferation of ethnic restaurants with dishes that incorporate it on the menu.