Millet is a kind of grain that grows wild in Africa and all across Asia. It grows about fifteen feet tall, like corn on the cob (it looks kind of like corn when it is growing, too). Millet grows fast, and doesn't need very much rain, so it's a good crop for dry or cold climates. It will grow in places where wheat and barley will not grow. Also, millet is easy to store. You can keep it up to five years. So it's good for places that have long winters or often have droughts.
There are two main different kinds of millet, and people may have begun farming the two kinds independently. Broomyard millet grew wild in China, and hunters and gatherers in early China probably ate millet. People have been farming broomyard millet in Northern China since about 4500 BC. Northern China was dry and cold, so it was a good place to grow millet. The sign for millet is common in Chinese writing, where the signs for "millet" and "mouth" put together mean "good", and the signs for "millet" and "man" together mean "harvest" or "year".
The other important kind of millet is pearl millet. It
grows wild in the Sudan (south
of the Sahara Desert) in Africa. By 4000 BC, people in the Sudan were farming
pearl millet, and from there pearl millet spread to East Africa and then
to Egypt by around 3000 BC.
The Egyptians made a flat bread like pita bread out of millet, and they
made their bread in the same room where they brewed beer.
The brewing process grew a lot of wild yeasts, and the yeasts got into the
millet and made the earliest raised millet bread. When the Egyptians noticed
this, they began mixing beer with their flour instead of water, to make
light fluffy bread like we eat today. Some people still make beer bread
today. Around the same time, lake-dwelling
Europeans were also using millet.
From East Africa millet also spread to India,
where people were farming it by about 2500 BC. The Harappans
used millet to make roti, a kind of flatbread like pita bread. About the
same time, Sumerians in
West Asia were also growing millet.
tells us that millet was growing in Israel
around 600 BC. The Greek historian Herodotus,
writing in the 400s BC, described millet growing very tall in the Persian
Empire, but he also knew that people farmed millet in Greece.
Millet in Europe about this time
was usually eaten boiled in water or milk
like oatmeal or polenta. In Northern Italy and Rome, this millet porridge
was called puls, and it was the most common food
of really poor people in the time of the Roman
About the same time, pearl millet spread from Eastern Africa south down the coast and became more and more common in southern Africa as well.
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Medieval Europeans continued to rely on millet porridge for an important part of their food (they callet it groats). And millet continued to be very important in northern China as well. Marco Polo, a man from Venice who visited China during the reign of Kublai Khan, in the 1200s AD, said that most Chinese people ate millet cooked in milk into porridge.
To find out more about millet, check out these books from Amazon.com or from your library:
Food, by Fiona MacDonald and others (2001). For kids, facts about food from all over the world. A little preachy.
Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples, by Don and Patricia Brothwell (1998). Pretty specialized, but the book tells you where foods came from, and how they got to other places, and what people ate in antiquity. Not just Europe, either!
Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, by Jean Louis Flandrin, Massimo Montanari, Albert Sonnenfeld. (1996). Hard going because it is translated from French, but Flandrin was one of the world's great food historians.