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Millet: The Grain That Built China

Millet fed the Red Army. It makes you strong. Try this recipe!


Millet: The Grain That Built China

Millet fed the Red Army. It makes you strong. Try this recipe!


Millet (小米 xiǎomǐ) was the sustenance that Chairman Mao and the Red Army relied on to sustain them during the arduous campaigns against the Kuomintang and the invading Japanese. Moreover, it is the crop that has kept parts of China nourished for more than 8,000 years, with archaeological evidence suggesting millet was cultivated as long ago as the Xia Dynasty (21st – 17th century BC) and Shang Dynasty (1600 BC-1056 BC), primarily around the Yellow River basin, northeast China and Inner Mongolia.

Perhaps even more importantly, depending on how you look at it, millet was also one of the first grains used to brew liquor. We have a lot to thank it for.

Millet itself retains some of the properties we might associate with the soldiers who relied on it back in 30s and 40s. While it prefers a warm climate (don’t we all), it possesses the ability to adapt to other environments, as well as being remarkably drought resistant and able to survive in poor, heavily acidic or alkaline soils. In short, it’s the kind of food you want to back you up in a tough situation.

Perhaps this is why, in some parts of northern China, it is also traditionally eaten by mothers after giving birth. The grain is mixed with brown sugar and boiled, providing a much needed nutritional boost for recovering mothers and their babies. For similar reasons, the elderly are also advised to gobble down a bowl of millet congee every day before going to bed, to provide energy and help get a good night’s rest. For the life in between these stages, traditional Chinese medicine teaches that millet will help nourish yin, remove humidity, strengthen the spleen and stimulate the appetite, as well as nurture the liver and help lift blood production.

From the Western perspective, millet falls down when compared with other grains in terms of providing nutritional value, primarily because the nutrients it does contain are hard to digest.  However, it is rich in calcium, phosphorous, iron, carotene, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, niacin, zinc, manganese, selenium and estrogen, amongst other things. Not bad for a grain that unlike rice does not even need to be refined before it is consumed.

Basically if millet was good enough for the Red Army, it’s good enough for you, and you should eat some every day. But let’s be honest, it’s also a little plain, so here’s a healthy, simple recipe that also stimulates the taste buds.

Millet and Pumpkin congee


l  100 grams millet

l  500 grams pumpkin, chopped

l  10 cups water

l  Rock sugar or honey to taste


  1. Boil the millet, pumpkin and water for half an hour.
  2. Add rock sugar or honey and mix evenly.
  3. Serve (told you it was simple).
Need something a little more hearty? Try the Chinese hamburger.