Jenny Chandler offers tips and recipes to get the best of these unsung heroes of the grain world
Sorghum, teff and millet are unlikely to feature on many British shopping lists. They probably require a trip to the health food store, an ethnic grocer or, if you’re out in the sticks, an online shopping spree—and yet, in much of the world, they’re absolute staples. Wheat, rice and corn, with their higher yields and profitability, have dominated for decades, overshadowing so many traditional crops. But now, the unsung heroes are demanding attention.
There’s increased demand for gluten-free grains (and these three all tick the box), a call for more plant-based protein, and a fascination with diverse cooking cultures fuelled by a new generation of chefs and writers such as Zoe Adjonyoh and Meera Sodha. Exciting times—but many of us are still in the dark when it comes to cooking with these less familiar grains, so I’ve put together a potted guide:
Millet has been consigned to the bird table in most British homes for decades and we’re missing a trick; these economical, tiny grains are loaded with essential minerals and fibre. Millet originated in Africa and Asia and today it’s still very much a staple, due to its nutritional profile and extraordinary ability to grow in extremely arid conditions.
Toasting dry millet in a pan until it smells nutty really brings out the flavour, and then you can add your water or stock. I work with cups here—one cup of millet (200g) to two cups (500ml) of water. Bring the water up to the boil, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat, leave covered to steam for 10 minutes. then fluff it up with a fork. If you’re after porridge or a creamy mash, just add an extra cup of water and cook for double the time.
Millet meal is coarse, rather like polenta, and gives that similarly gritty texture when added to cakes and muffins, while millet flour makes very good traditional rotis and flat breads.
Sorghum is thought to have originated in Egypt, before being domesticated in Ethiopia and the Sudan. Nowadays sorghum is grown as a food crop in much of Africa, the Middle East, India and Central America, while the USA and Europe have traditionally grown sorghum for animal fodder. As well as being highly nutritious, sorghum requires little water to grow and can survive extreme drought, making it highly sustainable and invaluable in marginal agricultural areas. Watch this space.
It’s still nigh-on impossible to track down the whole grains that can be popped like corn or cooked in much the same way as the millet above. In its homeland, sorghum is eaten as savoury porridge alongside meat and vegetables, or as a sweet breakfast porridge.
Sorghum flour is increasingly available and makes a very tasty and nutritious addition to gluten-free baking recipes (it’s a regular ingredient in commercially produced gluten-free products).
This is the tiniest cultivated cereal of them all, traditionally grown in the mountainous areas of Ethiopia and Eritrea, but gaining popularity globally owing to its great nutritional punch. Teff is high in iron and calcium, along with all the essential amino acids.
Prepare whole teff grains in much the same way as the millet, but use a ratio of one cup of teff to four cups of water.
Teff flour is used to make the traditional fermented injera flat breads served in the Horn of Africa (and at Ethiopian Flavours). The flour has a distinctive, toasty, nutty flavour that’s wonderful when combined with other grains—but beware, it is rather overpowering and the texture rather sandy, if used alone.