For Christmas one year, Son No. 1 gave me a copy of Cuisine & Empire: Cooking in World History by Rachel Laudan. Food often says a lot about the people who eat it and, by extension, the sort of society they create. This book opened my eyes to the role of millet in the Chinese kitchen.
To start with, the Chinese have been eating millet for 8,000 years and we have the bones of dogs, pigs, and humans to prove it. These neolithic grain eaters lived in the Yellow River Valley where broomcorn (Panicum miliaceum) and foxtail grasses (Setaria italica) once grew wild.
There are many kinds of millet: glutinous and non-glutinous, hulled and whole, popular in India, Japan, Africa and Asia. In China, the indigenous sorts (2 and 5 above) play a surprisingly prominent role in Chinese life. So here’s a line-up of the weird and wonderful things I’ve learned about Chinese millet.
Food for the Gods
2000 years ago, smothered millet was one of the eight delicacies of ancient China. It sounds pretty awful, to be honest. You cover a platter of steamed millet with a fried meat paste then pour fat on top.
Fat was an important flavouring used in ancient cookery. Grains were enhanced by fat, and had a better mouth-feel, and it provided distinctive flavours depending on the source — dog, beef, lamb, fox or pork.Hsiang Ju Lin, Slippery Noodles: A Culinary History of China
Cooks also ground millet into flour to make wine or ferment soy beans. There’s a recipe in Slippery Noodles for strong millet wine. The directions tell you when to start (New Year), what it should look like when done (sesame oil) and how much to serve your guests.
Four liters of it will make 20 people drunk. Those used to drinking 4 L of ordinary wine can only drink 600 mL of this. If they drink twice that amount, they are beyond help and they will die. Before this fatal stage is reached a drunken person is unconscious. He can be revived by pouring warm water over him. Pour it over his head and on his face. Soon he will be sitting up.Hsiang
Millet became synonymous with a good harvest. During the Xia Dynasty (2100-1600 BC), the Chinese worshiped a deity they called Hou Ji, Lord of the Millet Grains.
Rulers of the Zhou Dynasty (600-225 BC) claimed Hou Ji was their ancestor. They, too, made sacrifices in his honor. By the 2nd century AD, millet became as a weight measure for cash coins. One hundred grains was equal to one zhū (銖) while twenty-four zhū equalled one tael (兩 liǎng).
By this time, wheat and barley had arrived in China. These foreign grains, mài (麦), were shunned. No amount of steaming could alter their tough and chewy texture. Wheat was something to be eaten in the hungry time before the millet harvest.
Rotary grindstones changed all that. While cooks in the West used wheat flour to bake bread and other pastries, the ancient Chinese used their flour to make noodles, wrappers, buns, and dumplings. In the 3rd century AD, Shu Hsi wrote a rhapsody to these new wheat products.
Spring was the time for stuffed buns (man-t’ou), summer for a thin pancake, fall for leavened dough, winter for a bowl of steaming noodles. A sumptuous stuffed dumpling, a ball of kneaded dough filled with mutton or pork chopped as “fine as fly heads,” said Shu Hsi, was good for every season.Rachel Laudan, Cuisine & Empire
The final blow came during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), when the imperial capital moved to Hangzhou. There, rice was the major grain crop. Millet devolved into a poor man’s food.
In 1872, the Edinburgh physician James Watson worked for the Imperial Maritime Customs Service. His task was to report on the general health and well-being of Newchwang residents.
Nine-tenths of them live principally upon millet, a grain which seems to possess all the essential elements of nutrition. It is simply boiled in water, and is very often eaten alone. […] On this simple diet, a family of six people can live well for about four dollars a month.Customs Gazette No. XIII – January-March, 1872, Part VI, Medical Reports for the Half Year Ended 31st March, 1872
Mao Zedong was also a fan of millet. He wrote a poem to the grain in 1929. In 1946, he bragged about its powers to an American journalist.
We have only millet plus rifles to rely on, but history will finally prove that our millet plus rifles is more powerful than Chiang Kai-shek’s aeroplanes plus tanks.Mao Zedong in an interview with Anna Louise Strong, August 1946
The “It” Grain
Nowadays, in China, millet is a trendy health food. Refined grains like white wheat and polished rice are out. Coarse grains like millet, sorghum, black rice, and buckwheat are in. The best kind of millet comes from Aohan Province, where the original Yellow River Valley civilization once stood.
In Beijing, you eat millet as a porridge (zhōu 粥) with sweet or savory toppings. Sweet toppings include pumpkin, jujubes, and brown sugar, supposedly good for the digestive system in general and postpartum women in particular. If you want to go savory, then really the sky is the limit. Think hard-boiled brined eggs, fermented tofu, and fried peanuts.
These days, if you want to impress someone, you give them zhèngzōng gòng mĭ (正宗贡米). That’s genuine tribute millet, fit for an emperor.
Me? I’ll stick with rice.