Sorghum, the new 'wonder grain'

Sorghum is an ancient grain from the dry African plains.
Sorghum is an ancient grain from the dry African plains.PHOTO: ST FILE

NEW YORK • Forget millet, quinoa and brown rice: There is a new grain in town. Sorghum, an ancient grain from the dry African plains, is finally finding its way into restaurants throughout the United States. Whether it is drizzled on top of desserts, mixed into salads or used in a no-rice risotto, chefs turned onto the ingredient have fallen in love with it.

"It's called the 'wonder grain'," says chef Michelle Bernstein of Cena by Michy and Seagrape restaurants in Miami. She explains that her restaurant had been incorporating quinoa into the menu but that without variety, food becomes boring. Other than sorghum's versatility, its texture gives it an edge over other grains.

"It fills your mouth and your stomach," she says.

Though it is the fifth most popular cereal crop in the world, sorghum was largely ignored in the US until recently. While sweet sorghum molasses has brightened traditional southern cooking for generations, the grain itself has been mostly used as feed for cows and livestock. But when the drought hit, grain farmers started looking for something delicious and drought-resistant to plant and sorghum's popularity exploded.

In today's health-conscious world, a grain as versatile as sorghum that is also gluten-free, easier on the digestive system and rich in anti- oxidants, vitamins and protein is basically a sure thing. Plus, it is eco-friendly. An acre of sorghum uses a third less water than an acre of corn and fewer expensive fertilisers too.

Hugo's, a restaurant chain in California, has not only substituted sorghum for many rice dishes - Spanish rice, horchata, flatbreads, among others - it also put a statement about it on the menu.

"Introducing sorghum: the drought-tolerant, low-water-usage, wonder grain," Mr Tom Kaplan, co- owner and founder, reads off the menu. He adds: "I'm trying to introduce sorghum not just to our customers, but also to other restaurants because it could save millions of pounds of water."

In the 35 years the restaurant has been open, it has always been at the forefront of trends - quinoa, chai, vegan and even gluten-free. So the fact that Hugo's has taken up sorghum as its newest focus is a good sign for the grain; the gastronomic equivalent of being signed to a major Hollywood agent.

Eating sorghum is not just an environmental cause.

Marc Forgione, chef and co- owner of Restaurant Marc Forgione in New York, is adamant that eating is still the most important part of going to a restaurant. It uses all kinds of sorghum on its menu and the chef is a personal fan.

"I like it because it tastes good," he says. "I'm a chef first and foremost, not a doctor."

Another advantage sorghum has over its more established cousins is that it is cheap. In fact, Mr Kaplan hopes the price does increase, since it would encourage more farmers to grow it and get it onto even more plates throughout the country.

As he says: "Sorghum is a staple ingredient in Africa, India, China, Australia, Central America, Mexico... it's time for it to become a staple ingredient in the United States instead of cattle feed and biofuel."

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2015, with the headline 'Sorghum, the new 'wonder grain''. Print Edition | Subscribe