These humble grains are versatile and quick to cook. Look for them at Indian and Chinese dry goods stores and supermarkets.

• Species: The name "millet" lumps together many different species of grass seeds that have been cultivated for food. They come in many colours, including black, brown, white, yellow and red.

• Flavour and texture: Millet tastes mostly mild and nutty and occasionally have faint alkaline or bitter notes.

Some species come in regular and glutinous varieties. The latter cook up sticky, similar to glutinous rice, and are used in China and Japan to make dumplings and porridge. Look for them in Chinese stores, labelled "nuo xiao mi". Health food stores may sell airy-textured puffed millet.

Like lentils and grains, raw millet can be soaked and sprouted before cooking to improve their nutritional profiles and flavour.

• Pearl millet: Called kambu in Tamil. Often sold unhulled (photo 1), in which case, it must be pounded or blended and winnowed to remove the hulls before use. Widely grown and eaten in India and Africa.

• Proso millet: Also called common or broomcorn millet. Seen here (photo 2) is a yellow type. Widely cultivated in China, where regular proso is called ji and glutinous proso is named shu.

• Finger millet: Called ragi in Tamil, this has brick-red hulls (photo 3) and an earthy, mineral- tinged flavour - like carob, but less sweet.

It is also sold milled into a purple- grey flour and in noodle formats such as the fine vermicelli seen here (photo 4). Hawker stalls and restaurants make ragi into breads such as steamed ragi puttu.

• Foxtail millet: Called thinai in Tamil and xiao mi in Mandarin, this is common in India and China. Seen here (photo 5) is a white variety.

• Kodo millet: Called varagu (photo 6) in Tamil. A small, pale millet resembling couscous.

• Little millet: A fine millet, as small as sesame seeds, known as saamai (photo 7) in Tamil.

• Barnyard millet: Closely resembling little millet and most often encountered here as part of zakkoku mai, Japanese multi-grain mixes cooked with rice to boost its fibre and nutrient content. It is sold in sachets in Japanese supermarkets.

• Sorghum: Called cholam (photo 8) in Tamil. A staple starch in many parts of India, Africa and Asia, the mung-bean-sized grains cook up much like barley or bulghur wheat, with a slightly sweet chewiness.

• Cooking: Cook millet as you would rice. Simmer one part millet to two or 21/2 parts liquid, covered until the liquid has been absorbed, then let stand over low heat until cooked through.

Fluff before serving. Use three to four parts liquid for a wetter, congee-like texture.

For a nuttier taste, dry-roast the unrinsed grain in a pan over medium-low heat until toasty smelling before adding any liquid.

The smaller the millet, the faster it cooks. Like polenta, thick millet porridge sets once cooled and can be sliced and pan-fried.

You can substitute millet for rice in briyani, pilaf, nasi lemak, fried rice and claypot rice recipes. Cooked millet adds texture and fibre to hamburger, meatball and croquette mixtures.

• Millet flour: Very perishable. Like whole millet, store it airtight in a cool, dry place or in the fridge.

Indian cooks dry-roast whole millet before blending it into coarse flour to make snacks and dishes. They also grind soaked whole millet directly into batters for steamed breads and cakes.

Text and photos: Chris Tan

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 13, 2015, with the headline Millet. Subscribe