Sorghum is one of the top cereal crops in the world, along with wheat, oats, corn, rice, and barley. It was originally cultivated in Egypt in antiquity; the largest producers of sorghum in the modern era are still in Africa, although the crop has spread to southern Asia and the Americas as well. In traditional form, it is a towering plant over 6 feet (2 meters) tall, although many varieties designed for cultivation are dwarf breeds, specially designed for easy harvest. In Africa, however, traditional tall sorghum is still grown, and the stalks are put to a variety of uses.
An annual grass that is extremely drought tolerant, sorghum is an excellent choice for arid and dry areas. This grass has special adaptations to weather extremes and is a very stable source of nutrition as a result. It is most commonly red and hard when ripe and is usually dried after harvesting for longevity, as the grains are stored whole. It can be harvested mechanically, although higher crop losses will result if the crop is too moist.
Sweet sorghum is grown for the manufacture of syrup. In this case, the stalks of the plant are harvested, rather than the seeds, and crushed like sugar cane or beets to produce a syrup. After crushing, the syrup is cooked down to concentrate the natural sugars and packaged for sale.
Like other slightly exotic grain crops, this plant is used primarily for animal feed in the United States, although cultivation of this grain is on the rise. The seeds, stalks, and leaves can all be fed to livestock or left in the field and used as a forage crop. In the United States, a wet milling method is used to make sorghum starch, used in a variety of industrial applications such as adhesives and paper making. In much of the rest of the world, however, it is consumed by humans as well as animals.
Sorghum is favored by the gluten intolerant and is often cooked as a porridge to be eaten alongside other foods. The grain is fairly neutral in flavor, and sometimes slightly sweet. This makes it well adapted to a variety of dishes, because, like tofu, it also absorbs flavors well. It can also be eaten plain.
This grain is commonly eaten with the hull, which retains the majority of the nutrients. The plant is very high in fiber and iron, with a fairly high protein level as well. This makes it well suited to its use as a staple starch in much of the developing world.
Sorghum was probably brought to the United States by African slaves, who cultivated it in the Southern states. Some classic Southern recipes include it, suggesting that it was integrated into American cuisine by the 19th century, when additional strains were brought over from China. The grain is also used around the world to brew beers, with its close relative, broom corn, cultivated for the manufacture of traditional straw brooms.