I had millet for the first time recently, in the form of a bowl of porridge in Shenzhen. Increasingly, culiang (“coarse grains”) are making a comeback in China, with many eateries serving millet, sorghum, black rice, buckwheat and so on.
Sated with rich foods and xiliang (“refined grains” such as wheat and rice), many of the more affluent Chinese are turning to the supposedly healthier coarse grains consumed by their parents and grandparents in less bountiful times. The trend has yet to catch on in Hong Kong, probably because Hongkongers have always been a rice-eating people, and mainland fads have little or no following in the SAR.
The jury is still out on whether coarse grains are indeed more nutritious than wheat and rice, but they are among the most ancient food crops in Chinese, and indeed human, history.
The Xia (circa 2070BC-1600BC) and Shang (1600BC-1046BC) dynasties were “millet cultures” during which millet and related plants were the staple crops. One of the names of the legendary founder of the subsequent Zhou dynasty (1046-256BC) was Houji, literally “Lord of the Millet”.
It wasn’t until later that wheat supplanted millet to become the main crop and staple food in northern China. Coarse grains didn’t disappear, however. In addition to their use in the manufacture of liquors, animal feed and other industrial applications, they continued to be consumed by people who couldn’t afford wheat or rice.
Having had that bowl of millet porridge, I could see why coarse grains used to be the food of last resort for people in China. I’ll stick to my rice, thank you very much.