Sorghum Other Grains

Wheat, Rice and Corn are not the only grains (or seeds treated like grains) that have been important to human nutrition and survival, particularly in regions where none of those grains grow well or at all. In North America today some hold a place for taste and cooking characteristics, while others are of growing importance for reasons of health. The photo is of a field of sorghum. nearly ready for harvest.   Photo © i0044






Wheat Genus Triticum:   These grains are described on our Wheat page.

  • Einkorn
  • Emmer / Farro
  • Korasan / KAMUT
  • Spelt
Barley   -   [Damai (China); Hordeum vulgare]

Barley was first domesticated in the Near East with the earliest find being in Syria dated to around 7000 BCE. Beer has been made from it since about then. It has been grown in Korea from around 1400 BCE. Tibet started growing barley around 450 CE. Made into a flour product called tsampa it is still an important staple in that region.

Barley comes in two varieties, two row and six row. The six row is higher in protein and used primarily as animal feed. The two row is higher in sugar and is used more for human consumption. Note that barley does contain the protein gluten, but not enough to make levened bread.

While it was an important staple in early cultures, the most important use for barley today is in the making of beer. Well, maybe actually it always has been - some archaeologists think agriculture was started mainly for the production of beer and wine. English and German beers are made from malted two row barley. American beers were traditionally made from six row barley but both varieties are used today. Pardon me a moment - I have to refill my beer mug.       There, that's better.

The photo shows barley as harvested on the right, hulled (and possibly very lightly pearled) in the center, and to the left the heavily pearled form generally found in North American supermarkets.

Fonio   -   [ Digitaria exilis (White fonio)   |   Digitaria iburua (Black fonio)   |   Digitaria cruciata var. esculenta (Raishan)]

These are all varieties of Crabgrass that are cultivated as minor grain crops. D. exilis is cultivated in Guinea, Togo, Nigeria and Senegal. The very similar D. iburua is cultivated in Nigeria, Niger, Togo and Benin. D. cruciata is cultivated in a small region in the far northeast corner of India.

As you can see from the photo, this grass barely has seed heads. and the seeds are very tiny. They are also difficult to hull. Traditional methods include pounding with sand, then separating out the sand and husks with water, but a simple husking machine was invented in 1996.

This grain is now being promoted by the Health Food industry as more nutritious than Quinoa, and also by chefs of fancy restaurants. In both cases the enthusiasm is primarily because Fonio is exotic, expensive, difficult to get and fits into the current gluten free fad. This threatens to make a food poor region even more food poor.   Photo by U.S. Agency for International Development = Public Domain.

Job's Tears   -   [Coix, Coixseed, Adlay, Adlal; Hot bo bo (Viet); Yuuki hatomugi (Japan); Coix lacryma-jobi var. ma-yuen | Rosary beads: Coix lacryma-jobi var. lacryma-jobi ]

Two varieties of the is tropical grass are grown, one as a grain and the other for hard shelled beads. While native to Southeast Asia and grown there in mountainous regions, this plant is now also grown in the southern United States and in the tropical Americas. It is usually pearled except in Japan where it is used "brown". This grain is used in soups and to make teas and beverages, including distilled alcoholic beverages. In the Asian markets here in Los Angeles, and I presume elsewhere in North America, it is always packaged as "Pearl Barley", though it is easily recognized from its large size and deep groove on one side.   Details and Cooking.

Millets   -   [family Poaceae subfamily Panicoideae except finger millet subfamily Chloridoideae]

Millets were the original grains of China, cultivated since at least 5000 BCE, and the first known noodles were made from them. I use the plural because millet is not a single taxonomic group, but an agricultural grouping of similar small seeded grasses, some related only at the family level.

The first known noodles (2000 BCE) were made in northern China from two varieties of millet, foxtail (Setaria italica) and broomcorn (Panicum miliaceum). Similar noodles are still made in northern China where wheat does not grow well, and are called "iron wire" noodles because they are much stiffer than wheat noodles. Millet does not contain gluten so is safe for celiacs.

Types of Millet:

Foxtail: - [Xiao Mi (China); Tinal (India); Setaria italica]
Seed head

This millet is a major food crop in dry regions of northern China. In North America it is grown on a moderate scale for animal silage and bird seed. In China this millet was in cultivation by 5000 BCE, is known in Europe from around 2000 BCE and was cultivated in Turkey by at least 600 BCE.

Foxtail millet is the most common millet in China today and is a component of the 4000 year old noodles recently found in China but cannot be made into noodles alone - other, stickier millets are needed for adhesion, in this case Proso millet.   Photo of immature seed head by Mark Nesbitt and Delwen Samuel released into the public domain.

Pearl: - [Pennisetum glaucum]
Seed heads

Originating in tropical Africa, this millet was in cultivation in India by 2000 BCE. This millet grows under conditions other grains can not and is an important crop in areas where the soil is poor and salty and the climate dry and hot. It now account for about 50% of the millet grown worldwide.   Photo by US Federal Government = public domain.

This millet is very good as poultry food and is fed to chickens so they'll lay the high Omega-3 eggs sold to the health conscious, and is sold as a substitute for wheat for persons with wheat intolerance. It can be most commonly found in markets serving communities from the Indian subcontinent and Africa.

Proso Millet - [Common millet, Broom corn millet, White millet, Hog millet; Siao mi (China); Panicum miliaceum]
Seed head

Cultivation appears in both the Caucasus and eastern China about 5000 BCE. It is the second most common millet in China today. The seeds are small, about 0.1 inch (2 to 3 mm) and vary in color from cream to yellow to orange-red and brown.

Proso millet is grown mainly as animal fodder and bird seed in North America, the former Soviet Empire and South America. In India it is an important food crop, but it is not grown in Africa. Like Pearl Millet it is sold in North America for use by persons with wheat intolerance.   Photo by Kurt Stüber distributed under license GNU Free Documentation License v1.2.

Glutinous Millet - []

There are a number of "glutinous millets", none of which contain any gluten. The one shown in the photo is common in Korean markets here in Los Angeles. The seeds are tiny about 0.05 inch (1.3 mm) and are dark and greenish in color. A Chinese glutinous millet, Echinochloa villosa, has quite large 0.16 inch (4 mm) reddish seeds and has been cultivated in northern China since the Neolithic. There are also glutinous varieties of Proso Millet.

Finger Millet - [Ragi (S. India); Juar, Jowar, Bajra (Hindi); Dagusa (Ethiopia); Hong mi, Chi ke (Viet); African millet; Eleusine coracana]
Seed head

Native to the Ethiopian highlands, this millet was introduced into India by 2000 BCE and is now grown in the Himalayas up to an elevation of 7500 feet (2,300 meters). It is often intercroped with legumes for better yield. This millet has very good storage properties so it can be held for times of shortage.

This millet is used in hundreds of ways throughout the Indian subcontinent, including in the making of beer. It is also much eaten and made into beverages by the Humong people of Vietnam.   Photo by US Federal Government = public domain.

Oats   -   [Avena sativa]
Oats in husks

This grain originated in northern Mesopotamia, but the first evidence of domestication is from Europe from around 2000 BCE. It is grown in temperate zones in both the Old and New Worlds in regions where the summers are too wet and cool for other grains, but is almost unknown in Asia.

Oats have not been held in high esteem by some populations but are considered very important in Scotland. Samurl Johnson wrote in his dictionary, "Oats: a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people". The Scots replied that "Consequently England has the finest horses, and Scotland has the finest men". Actually many of the less fortunate in England also survived on oats.

In North America oats are known almost entirely for Quaker Rolled Oats as a hot breakfast cereal and for oatmeal cookies made from the same product. A less known but very fine use of oats is in the brewing of beer, particularly oatmeal stout.

Oats are controversial for use in a gluten free diet, though they may (or may not) be safe, in North America they are almost always contaminated with wheat so are not safe. Oats and particularly oat bran are currently being promoted as capable of lowering blood cholesterol. The photo shows oat grains still in the husks, the way they would be served to horses.   Photo by Rasbak distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike v3.0.

Rye   -   [Secale cereale]
Seedheads This grain was first domesticated in eastern Turkey and is still grown there as a relatively minor crop. Rye is able to grow in climates so cold other grain crops fail, so has been most heavily grown in the northern reaches of Europe, including Scandinavia and Russia.

Rye is well known in North America for the flour used to make Rye Bread, though that bread is commonly as much wheat as rye because rye has less gluten and does not rise as well. This can be somewhat corrected by an acidic dough, for which reason sourdough rye is so much made. By this means quite edible bread of only rye flour can be made. Rye crisp crackers are also very well known and popular. Another popular use for rye is in the making of rye whisky.

Rye is still grown widely in Central and Eastern Europe where it has long been the main bread grain, particularly in Finland, Latvia and Lithuania. Its production is, however, in decline as imported wheat has become increasingly available. Russia, Poland and Germany are the major producers.

Rye is, of course, not safe for celiacs, having a fairly substantial gluten content. It's other health problem, affecting both horses and humans, is vulnerability to ergot fungus which is seriously toxic. Ergot poisoning affects not only the body but the mind, causing convulsions and hallucinations. In the past ergot infections have coincided with a rise in witchcraft trials, in both Europe and North America.   Photo by U.S. Federal Government = public domain.

Sorghum   -   [Milo, Broom Straw, Egyptian Millet, Sudan Grass, Feterita, Shallu, Kaffir Corn, Guinea Corn; Durra (Arabic); Jola, Jowari, Jawari, Juwar (India); Gao-liang, Shushu (China); Sorghum bicolor]

The first evidence of cultivated sorghum comes from India and Pakistan from earlier than 1000 BCE - but it is not native there. It must have first been cultivated in sub-Saharan Africa some time before that. Modern cultivars appear to have been developed in East Africa about 2000 years ago but exactly where has not been determined. It is not nearly as nutritious as wheat or millet.

The U.S. is the largest producer (mainly for animal feed and ethanol production) but it is also a major crop in India, Nigeria, Mexico and other countries with dry areas. Sorghum flour is used to make a bread called Bhakri in Maharashtra and Karnataka provinces of India.

In some areas sorghum replaces barley for production of beer, including by major names with breweries in areas barley doesn't grow well. It is also used for production of "gluten free" beer consumable by celiac sufferers. In China sorghum is used for production of distilled alcoholic drinks.

In the American South sorghum syrup made from a cultivar called "sweet sorghum" has long been used for pouring over pancakes as maple syrup is used in the north, though that usage is declining.

Sorghum is also the source of "broom corn", the straw from which brooms are made, and is used to make composition board for construction. Sorghum does not contain gluten and is safe for celiacs. The photo specimens, about 0.17 inch diameter, were taken from a bag of pigeon feed. The pigeons, for their part, would rather have less sorghum and more peas.

Teff   -   [Eragrostis tef]
Whole Teff Grains

Teff is a grass native to northern Ethiopia and probably in cultivation much earlier than 1000 BCE, its tiny seeds are highly nutritious compared to wheat and it is safe for celiacs, having no gluten. It is now becoming more available in North America, and can be ordered on-line at reasonable prices. It is used to make Injera, the characteristic sourdough bread of Ethiopia and Eritrea, often served as an edible tablecloth, and also used to make Tella, the beer of the region.   Details and Cooking.

Wild Rice   -   [Zizania palustris, Zizania aquatica]

I'm tired of reading that "Wild Rice is not actually rice but the seed of an annual grass". Well what in hades do they think regular rice is? Sheesh! give me a break! Anyway, you'll find wild rice over on the Rice Page.

"Grains" that aren't Grasses

This is not a grain but the seed of an herb related to spinach. It has a high yield and easily harvested so its tiny seeds are used as if they were grain. Unlike grasses, the leaves are edible and widely used for food. For details see our Amaranth page.

This is not a grain but the seed of a plant related to rhubarb. It is highly productive, particularly good in colder climates and is used as if it were a grain. For details see our Buckwheat page.

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), is not a grain but the seed of an herb related to Epazote and common Goosefoot. It is high yield and easily harvested so its tiny seeds are used as if they were grain. For details see our Amaranth page.

Health & Nutrition

Celiac Disease is a serious degenerative autoimmune condition requiring total elimination of gluten proteins from the diet. Gluten is contained only in certain grains, so each grain above includes a note as to whether it contains gluten or not. For more information see our main Grasses & Grains page for more information.

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