Back To Our Roots With Sorghum

Sorghum has been eaten for millennia in Africa, but for many of us it’s unfamiliar on the table and in the garden.

While some of us may be familiar with the word ‘sorghum’, we probably wouldn’t be able to pick the plant out from a line-up, we probably don’t know how to cook it and we probably don’t know how good it is for us. That’s appalling, considering that this ancient grain is indigenous and has been an important part of African and South African culture for thousands of years. (And don’t think I’m judging anyone – I was as clueless as everyone else before I started to do some research!)

A grain that is produced on a cane-like grass, sorghum is a crop grown widely in Asia and Africa and is a staple in the diet of over 500 million people. In fact, it is now the fifth-most grown cereal crop in the world and the third biggest crop in Australia. While over 500 cultivars have been recognised, there are two main types: white and red. The grain of white sorghum is sweeter and usually used as a grain crop for food. Red sorghum may be less tasty, but it is easier to grow successfully because it is less attractive to pests like birds – it is also used extensively to make beer from.

Growing Sorghum

Sorghum is an environmentally friendly crop as it doesn’t require as many resources to grow: it is water-wise and doesn’t require much in the way of feeding either. In fact, it is drought resistant once established.

The canes normally reach 2 – 2.5m in height although some varieties are much shorter (60cm) and others much taller (4.5m). The leaves are broad and corn-like, and the flower clusters can contain thousands of flowers and then seeds.

When sowing seed, sow 150mm apart in rows in spring and sow the seed 3 – 5cm deep. Water until the seeds have germinated and the little plants are a few centimetres tall. While sorghum will grow in poor soil, it will do better in rich soil with added compost and slow-release fertiliser.

Sorghum plants are tough and not usually affected by pests or disease, but birds will feed on the grain and can devastate a crop. The plus side of this is that if you want to attract seed-eating birds to your garden, a few rows of sorghum will do just that.

Health Highlights

  • Gluten-free
  • High in iron
  • High in fibre
  • High in protein
  • Low in fat
  • Contains potassium, niacin, thiamine, zinc, vitamin B6, phosphorous, manganese and magnesium.
  • Reduces inflammation due to high antioxidant levels.

In the kitchen

Sorghum is the main ingredient of Maltabella porridge, a malted-grain porridge that is relatively healthy and is available at almost all supermarkets in South Africa. On a cold winter’s morning, the unmistakable aroma and flavour of Maltabella can be so comforting… The small, round grain can also be added to soups and stews, cooked like rice or even popped like popcorn. Sorghum also makes a good flour alternative for people who suffer from gluten intolerance or Celiac disease, and the flour can be used for flat breads or tortillas.

When buying sorghum, you will probably find it in various forms: whole grain, pearled, puffed, flaked, coarse ground and finely ground flour. Whole grain is the healthiest, as with any grain, and the more refined the product the less healthy it generally is

Some sorghum varieties produce very sweet sap, much like sugar cane, and the stems can be chewed or the sap extracted as a sugar substitute or made into syrup or molasses.

Sorghum flatbread

Also known as Jowar Roti or Jowar Bhakri, this traditional Indian bread made from sorghum flour is gluten-free and served with curries and chutneys. Its very easy to make and is best served immediately.

  • 2 cups sorghum flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups hot water

Place the flour and salt in a large bowl and slowly pour in the hot water, stirring all the time until mixed well. The dough should be smooth and not sticky – adjust flour and water as necessary. Divide into 16 pieces and roll out into thin circles. Cook in a hot dry pan for a few minutes on each side and set aside under a damp tea towel until they are all cooked. Serve immediately.

The Gardener