Mature sorghum has a flowery seed head that turns a nutty brown while the stems are still green. In the evening, the seed heads catch the slanting light, making the whole field glow red.
When we moved here, five years ago, you seldom saw sorghum in the area—now it is everywhere, replacing corn and soy—gaining attention because it is non-GMO. The Japanese are buying a lot of it, which makes our local grain dealers happy. We use sorghum (also called milo) instead of corn in our grain mix for cows, pigs and chickens.
My husband has a fondness for sorghum because one of his first experiences in the U.S. was the Sorghum Day Festival at Wewoka, Oklahoma. In those days (twenty-five years ago), it was a small event—today it attracts over twenty thousand to view the sorghum pressing. (Recent additions include over one hundred vendors, a Sorghum Queen pageant, parade, 5K run, Chamber of Commerce banquet, art show and golf tournament!)
The centerpiece of the festival is an 1800s mill. Two mules, harnessed to a pole, slowly turn the mill, pressing the sweet juice from the cane. The juice is then pumped into a stainless steel pan where it is boiled over a wood fire for an hour and a half until it becomes a thick, dark, sweet syrup. Early Oklahoma pioneers favored the thick “sorghum molasses” over maple syrup.
Sorghum is a member of the grass family (the proof being you can extract a sweet juice from the stalks), with native species thriving in Australia, Africa, Asia, Central America and even certain islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The large seed heads make it easy to harvest. One species is grown for grain (it is the fifth most important cereal crop in the world), while others serve as fodder plants. Sorghum thrives in hot dry climates, and generally gets high marks as a crop or pasture grass, although one species, Johnson grass, is classified as an invasive species.
Nowhere is sorghum more valued than in Africa, where its many forms provide fodder for animals (especially cows), as well as grain for porridge, bread, syrup, and beverages. Like all grains, sorghum contains anti-nutrients, including cyanide and nitrates, so it needs a fermentative soaking to render it edible.
What’s sad is the strong prejudice against sorghum by scientists and educated people in Africa. The author of an authoritative book on fermented foods in the Sudan (more on this in an upcoming blog) relates that in one instance, a research professor, on hearing about a book that praised the use of sorghum, “felt very indignant and the next morning expressed his strong opposition to the idea of eating sorghum. . . as an unacceptable invitation ‘to go back’ after all ‘the progress the Sudanese have made’—presumably as wheat eaters.” Wheat may confer prestige to the newly educated, but it is a totally inappropriate grain for cultivation in the arid Sudan.
You can find recipes for alcoholic sorghum beer on the Internet but these are not like the beers that African women make in their villages. True village-made sorghum beer has a low alcohol content but a high lactic acid content—very high; in fact, these beverages smell vaguely of barf and represent a definite acquired taste.
The Africans value the cloudy, smelly beverage as a true thirst-quencher, drunk in large quantities to facilitate long hours working in the sun. As a lacto-fermented product, sorghum beverages provide immunity to the diseases we associate with Africa and protection against pathogens in food and water. (Investigators in Africa found that fermentation of sorghum dough greatly decreased the levels of staphylococcus and E coli. that were in the original mixture—fermentation is nature’s way of taking care of pathogens that can flourish in less-than-hygienic environments.)
Unfortunately, the continent has been Coca-Colonized, with most Africans today preferring American-style soft drinks—considered modern and hip—to the old-fashioned beer their grandparents drank. Advertising for soft drinks is shameless, as seen in this photo my husband took in Zimbabwe a few years ago.
It is in the Sudan that fermented sorghum foods come into their own—the Sudanese make about thirty different fermented foods and drinks from sorghum, including at least twelve types of sorghum bread. Typically the hulled grains are soaked in water for one day, then wet milled using a quern (stone mill) several times over three or four days. Spices such as cumin and cardamom may be added at this point. The milled grain is cooked to make a thin porridge, then allowed to ferment again, for up to six days. At this point the gruel is strained, with the residue given to animals. The remaining batter is baked into thin sheets on a hot plate—often greased with animal brain! The bread, called abreh, is similar to injera bread from Ethopia.
Embedded in this article is a video showing the preparation of abreh. Note the use of a credit card for spreading the batter! And listen to the children having a great time in the background.
Although sorghum contains no gluten, this thin bread seems to hold together very well—probably a result of the long fermentation process. The taste will be very sour. Here’s what I have come up with for modern kitchens.
1 cup sorghum grains
About 2 cups water
2 tablespoons whey, vinegar or lemon juice
1 teaspoon powdered cardamom
½ teaspoon powdered cumin
Additional 2 cups water
Sorghum syrup to taste
Butter to taste
Use a grain mill to grind the grain into flour. Mix with the water, adding more if necessary—the mixture should be soupy—along with the whey, vinegar or lemon juice. Cover and allow to ferment at room temperature for 24 hours.
Bring an additional 2 cups water to a boil. Stir in the fermented sorghum along with the cardamom and cumin. Bring to a simmer and cook gently, uncovered, for 30 minutes, stirring frequently.
Consume like oatmeal with sorghum syrup and butter.
Thousands of books and blogs promote fermented foods these days, but the vanguard for fermented foods—from sauerkraut to kombucha to sourdough bread—was the Weston A. Price Foundation. The Foundation served these foods at its earliest conferences (started in 2000) and has consistently updated its membership on the science that validates these traditional staples. If you have benefitted from fermented foods, consider becoming a member of the Weston A. Price Foundation and supporting the work of this pioneering educational foundation. Visit www.westonaprice.org and click on Join Now.