Delicious grains: millets of China, Mongolia, and Central Asia

A fried foxtail millet pilaf with sweet and savory Chinese sausage and pickled mustard greens

The millets of China, Mongolia, and Central Asia are hearty crops that can be sustained in very arid climates. For tens of thousands of years they have served as important staple crops for many of those region’s food cultures (especially before the widespread use of wheat). Today I am writing about two of the most common types of millet that have ancient Eurasian roots, but can be easily found in Philadelphia Chinese markets: foxtail millet (Setaricia italica) and broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum). Both are nutty, delicious, and nutritious, and both are definitely worth checking out as a an interesting alternative to other grains.

If you don’t know what to expect with attempting to cook these millets, I find their tastes and textures remind me very much of a starchy couscous (in fact, in Chinese, couscous is often called by the same word used to refer to foxtail millet 小米, despite the fact that couscous is not a grain but a type of pasta). In porridge forms, the taste and texture is reminiscent of Cream of Wheat (for me this isn’t a negative connotation). The millet grains that I describe below are smaller than rice, and they cook faster than rice too. These would be versatile in pilaf or porridge preparations, savory or sweet. Both have “glutinous” (I presume those would be best in porridge-type preparations) and “regular” forms in Philadelphia markets. I’ll be focusing on the non-glutinous types today.

Two types (out of four available, including glutinous varieties of each of these) of millet purchased at Heng Fa market on Washington Ave (aka Hung Vuong). Wise Wife brand “Northeastern big yellow grain” and Merry Group brand “Northeastern small grain”

I took several weeks to research as many millet-focused recipes as I could find from my Chinese, Mongolian, Uyghur, Uzbek, and Kazakh language cookbook collection, and some existing resources online. Most recipes that I found were for porridge preparations, like a sweet snack or hot breakfast recipe. There were also several pilaf-like preparations that intrigued me. As I’ve been home-bound for several weeks now due to the COVID-19 related lockdown in Philadelphia, I decided to try several millet-based dishes, and I share some of my millet adventures below.

Foxtail millet (Setaricia italica), 小米, qonaq, shar budaa, etc.

Foxtail millet was domesticated in north-central China some 10,000 years ago1 (in the same region that is the Chinese wheat heartland of breads and noodles along the Yellow River) and is still an important crop there. The grain is also now common in Central Asian and Mongolian food cultures.  In Chinese this is commonly referred to as “little grain” 小米, as opposed to the “big grain” 大米 (which is a common way to refer to rice). It is also sometimes referred to as 粟米 or 谷[子]米.

Broomcorn millet (L) and the smaller foxtail millet (R), a side-by-side comparison

According to my dictionaries, Central Asian Turkic languages near China refer to foxtail millet as: қонақ/قوناق (Kazakh) qo’noq/қўнақ (Uzbek), конок (Kyrgyz), and چۈچگۈن قوناق (Uyghur). It is interesting that the unclassified cognate qonaq in Uyghur refers to corn/maize instead of millet, but in all other languages it seems to point specifically to millet.

In Mongolian this grain is commonly referred to as “yellow grain” шар будаа ᠰᠢᠷ᠎ᠠ ᠪᠤᠳᠠᠭ᠎ᠠ, or “day grain” хоног будаа ᠬᠣᠨᠤᠭ ᠪᠤᠳᠠᠭ᠎ᠠ. Is it possible that the Mongolian khonog might be a cognate to Turkic qonaq?

Broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum), 黄米, tariq, tari, khar budaa, etc.

Broomcorn millet was likely domesticated in Central Asia2, again in ancient times, but it has long been used in Chinese and Mongolian food cultures as well. This is known commonly called “yellow grain” 黄米 in Chinese. It is a little fatter than foxtail millet, and it is a little starchier. It works as a starchy grain stand-in as part of a broader meal, but it is likely best suited as a porridge grain.

In Mongolian, this is called “black grain” хар будаа ᠬᠠᠷ᠎ᠠ ᠪᠤᠳᠠᠭ᠎ᠠ. In nearby Turkic languages it is known as тары/تارى (Kazakh), tariq/тариқ (Uzbek), таруу (Kyrgyz), and تېرىق (Uyghur).

A very simple foxtail millet porridge 小米粥. Put a small amount of millet (start with 1/2 cup or so for 1-2 people) and cover with water. Bring to boil, and keep adding boiling water as needed to cover the grains. Boil for 20 or 30 minutes until the grains start to break. In China sugar is often added, and sometimes red goji berries. I kept mine plain as a nutty alternative to rice porridge

In my search for recipes in various modern Central Asian language cookbooks, it was evident that primarily China focused on the difference between these two grains. In almost all of my non-Chinese language cookbooks, the types of millet were not specified. Instead a generic term for millet (or perhaps the meaning is “groats”?) was generally used: сөқ/سوك (Kazakh), so’q/сўқ (Uzbek), سۆك (Uyghur). 

A breakfast of foxtail millet porridge, boiled with water and goat milk (thanks Betty’s Acres!) with salted butter and a touch of sugar. The name of this dish is “yellow grain zutan” шар будааны зутан ᠰᠢᠷ᠎ᠠ ᠪᠤᠳᠠᠭᠠᠨ ᠤ ᠵᠤᠲᠠᠩ and it is a classic recipe from the Nomads restuarant chain cookbook 99 Recipes of Traditional Mongolian Foods Уламжлалт монгол хоолны 99 жор. Imagine a chewier Cream of Wheat, but 100 times richer…

Making a pilaf-style dish with millet

This can be done a few different ways. A “fried rice” approach (i.e. the image below) may be the easiest starting point. You can simply par-boil the grains to your desired consistency (just before al-dente would be good). Then you can drain, cool, and set aside until you are ready to stir fry with the other ingredients. Or you can put in the hot drained grains right into the stir fry preparation. The grains would go in last, just to season and finish. If your grains are fully cooked, an overnight rest in the fridge would make them perfect for a fried “rice” (just like day-old rice is always better for fried rice).

This was loosely based on Northwestern-style [i.e. Shaanxi province] fried [par-boiled] millet “rice”, with egg, gai lan, chile, scallion, and ground venison from Wisconsin. Plus salt and pepper and a touch of pickling vinegar. It was really delicious.

Alternatively, you could start by frying all of the other pilaf ingredients, and then dumping in pre-soaked (30 mins) and drained millet before frying it together. You would then need to add some boiling water as you cook all of the ingredients together, just enough to bring the grains to boil/steam to fully cooked. It might take 10-15 minutes or so. I did that process below with a recipe very loosely based on a Shaanxi dish I saw for “Millet fried sheep parts” 谷米炒羊杂. Instead of sheep organ meat, I used a sweet and savory Chinese sausage.

A Uyghur-style millet “rice” with lamb stir fry سۆك ئېشى

Millet can also be prepared as a separate starch to eat together with stir fried things. I found one such recipe in the Rice cookbook of the “Uyghur food and drink culture” series (2007 by Yunus Hemdulla ئۇيغۇر يېمەك – ئىچمەك مەدەنىيىتى – گۈرۈچ تائاملىرى). The recipe is called “millet rice” soek eshi سۆك ئېشى 黄米饭 and it was delicious. I boiled pre-soaked (for 30 mins) broomcorn millet in just enough water to ensure it cooked through. I kept adding boiling water and kept stirring until water was absorbed and the grains were not too crunchy. I also added a little butter. Based on the image from the cookbook, I was actually going for this slightly sticky texture. I can’t say for certain if it is more commonly presented as independent grains. It was delicious in any case, and the near mashed potato consistency was a great pair to the lamb and pepper stir fry.

I should note that in the Uyghur cookbook, the millet was steamed in a bowl. That process may be easier to control the cooking time of the millet and better protect against burning on the bottom of the pan.

These are trying times as the world faces a pandemic. Stay strong everyone, and eat well when you can.

Citations

1,2E.N. Anderson, Food and Environment in Early and Medieval China. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. (pages referenced 36-37)

About David Dettmann

Food obsessed and frequently nostalgic.
This entry was posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, Central Asia/Uyghur food, Chinese food, Mongolian food and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Delicious grains: millets of China, Mongolia, and Central Asia

  1. Kate says:

    David you are amazing. Always fun to read your work

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s