Have You Tried Sorghum or Teff?
Although sorghum is an ancient grain that originated in Australia and Africa, it has long been a staple crop in the American south. In fact, it is described as the third most important cereal crop in the United States. Thanks to its drought tolerance, it’s the fifth most important grain crop worldwide. Many Americans remain unfamiliar with this plant food, though, because it has traditionally been used as livestock feed, or as the source of a thick, sweet syrup, known as sorghum molasses. Sorghum molasses is produced from the sugar-laden stalks of sweet varieties of this grass-family plant. When growing, sorghum looks a bit like corn, with a similar stalk and leaves reminiscent of corn leaves.
There are many species of sorghum. One species, known as Johnson grass, is considered an invasive species in the U.S. Another species, called “broomcorn” produces a natural broom-like structure, and it was used for this very purpose in the Mediterranean region in the Medieval period. To this day, it is used to make traditional “corn brooms”. Still other species have been used to produce ethanol, primarily for use as a renewable fuel source. Today, we can enjoy sorghum in the form of sorghum molasses. It’s presently difficult to find the whole grain for use like any other cereal grain. Sorghum is relatively low in protein (about 9%), but it has served as a sort of survival food in many countries in times of famine, due to its ability to thrive during drought conditions that may kill other crops.
If you’ve every ventured into an Ethiopian restaurant, you have probably dined on teff. Teff is a tiny grain Ethopians have traditionally used to make a spongy flatbread called injera. Injera forms the basis of virtually every important meal consumed in Ethiopia, and by extension, in Ethiopian restaurants. Fragments of injera are used as a sort of utensil, in lieu of forks or spoons, to scoop up other prepared dishes from communal platters of food.
Teff is so revered by Ethiopians that they’ve banned the export of this crucial grain from their country. But, with a little luck, curious Americans can get their hands on some teff that has been cultivated and harvested here in the United States (primarily in Idaho). Some have predicted that teff is poised to become the next “superfood” grain. It’s high in dietary fiber and iron, and supplies complete protein (about 9-11%, which is slightly more than oats) and calcium. It is always eaten in whole grain form, which probably explains why it may be more nutritious than common grains such as wheat, corn, or barley. Teff is gluten free.