Sorghum, also known as milo or jowar, is a nutritious, gluten-free grain, grown since ancient times in Africa and parts of Asia. It is currently gaining popularity in the West as a replacement for traditional grains like wheat and barley, due to its versatile nature and sustainable growing practices.
Despite being relatively little-known in Western nations, sorghum is actually the world’s fifth most commonly-grown grain, after wheat, rice, corn and barley. It has been a food staple in Africa for millennia, with the earliest-known record coming from an archeological dig in Nabta Playa, near the Egyptian-Sudanese border, and dated around 8,000 BC. It can be eaten as porridge, in stews, used to brew beer and to make Ethiopian injera bread.
In the West, sorghum is most commonly used as feed for livestock, although it is also popular in the southern US for making a sweet syrup known as ‘sorghum molasses’. It is also increasingly being used as an alternative to traditional Western grains, partly because it requires less water and fertiliser to grow, making it a more sustainable crop, and partly for its potential as a gluten-free grain.
As medical science becomes better at diagnosing gluten-related conditions like coeliac disease, more and more people are switching to a gluten-free diet. This means cutting out wheat, barley and rye, and only eating oats that are specifically labeled ‘gluten-free’, as these are often contaminated with other grains. Because of this, a gluten-free diet can mean going without large parts of the typical Western diet, including pasta, cereals, bread and other baked products, and people with gluten intolerance can often struggle to find replacements for favourite foods, or to replace the essential nutrients other people tend to get from grain-based foods.
Grains are an important source of protein, dietary fibre and various vitamins and minerals. In fact, wheat flour is often fortified with extra vitamins and minerals precisely because it forms such a large part of most people’s everyday diet. Going gluten-free can mean needing to find alternative sources of iron, zinc, and B vitamins, particularly Vitamin B12. It also means fewer options for sources of healthy carbohydrates, protein and fibre. Sorghum is a great alternative nutrient source for coeliacs: it is rich in iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and B vitamins, and one cup (192 grams) contains 13 grams of dietary fibre, 20 grams of protein and 19% of your daily value for iron.
There are plenty of ways to add sorghum to your diet, and even better, it can be used to recreate versions of much-missed ‘forbidden’ foods you thought were off the menu. It is available ground into a gluten-free flour so you can enjoy bread, pizza, cookies and cakes just like everyone else. Opt for whole grain sorghum flour where possible, as white flour has many of its nutrients stripped away during the manufacturing process.
Experts in gluten-free baking recommend using a mixture of gluten-free flours, so try mixing sorghum flour with rice flour or quinoa flour for best results. You will also need to add a binding agent to mimic the action of gluten, which is normally what binds all the ingredients together. Xantham gum, cornstarch and tapioca starch all work well as alternative binding agents, and increasing the amount of oil, fat and eggs in your recipe can also help.
As well as providing gluten-free flour, sorghum is available flaked, providing a tasty alternative to your morning breakfast cereal and a tasty addition to your favourite granola bar. It can be substituted for pearl barley in casseroles and soups, and is even used to brew beer.
Gluten-free diets tend to rely heavily on rice and quinoa, either or which can be swapped for sorghum if you’re craving more variety. You can pop it like popcorn, and if you have a sweet tooth, why not try some of that good ol’ southern sorghum molasses on your gluten-free pancakes?
For an idea of the true range of sorghum recipes available, from healthy salads to tempting chocolate cake, to indulgent cocktails, check out these delicious sorghum recipe ideas from HuffPost.
If you’re looking for something a little different, check out this recipe for sorghum ice cream, courtesy of chef Edward Lee.
Fonio, also known as acha, ‘hungry rice’ or podgi, is another highly nutritious gluten-free African grain. It is traditionally grown in the westerly nations of the Sahel region, including Mali, Senegal, Benin, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria, where it is made into porridge or steamed and eaten like couscous.
Fonio is a small, black grain, similar in appearance to a grain of brown sugar, although it will swell to twice its original size when cooked. It has an earthy, nutty flavour, and a texture similar to that of couscous or quinoa. Like sorghum, fonio requires less water than most grains, and grows well without pesticides, making it a relatively environmentally-friendly crop. It is also remarkably fast-growing, taking just six to eight weeks to grow and harvest.
Another healthy choice for coeliacs, fonio provides many of the same nutrients as gluten grains like wheat, rye and barley. It is rich in fibre, protein, amino acids, B vitamins, iron, zinc and magnesium.
With its unique, nutty flavour, fonio makes a particularly tasty gluten-free flour for all your coeliac baking needs, although again, it should be mixed with other gluten-free flours and a binding agent for best results. It can also be used as a replacement for bulgur wheat in tabbouleh, or as an alternative for rice, couscous or quinoa.
Fonio is great as part of a delicious and healthy grain bowl, topped with your choice of fresh veggies, lean meats and rich stews. Try modifying some traditional rice recipes to add flavour to your fonio.
A tasty West African classic, jollof rice works just as well as jollof fonio. Seasoned with rich tomato stew, curry powder and a kick of cayenne pepper, jollof rice is the perfect addition to any grain bowl.
Aromatics and umami work together beautifully in this flavourful mushroom pilaf rice dish, which is inspired by pilaf rice and Ghanian oil rice.
For a classic curry flavour with added veggie goodness, try some curry-spiced fonio, simply made using curry, frozen veggies, stock and a few extra spices to taste.
For these recipes in full, check out The Canadian African.