For perhaps 20 centuries, sorghum has been a staple of South Asia. Today, for example, it occupies at least 20 million hectares in India, more area than any other food crop except rice. In monetary terms "jowar," as it is locally called, is perhaps India's third most valuable food plant, exceeded only by rice and wheat.
Outsiders have often dubbed this African grain "the great millet of India." And no wonder. Jowar is an important food over much of the country, and especially in the dry areas of the central and southern states. Millions of Indians eat it. Some use it like rice, but most jowar is milled into flour. More or less white in color, this flour is used especially for making traditional unleavened breads (chapatis ). Usually the whole-grain flour is employed, but some jowar is also polished to remove the germ and create a flour with a long shelf life. This can be blended with wheat flour (up to 25 percent) for preparing even Western-style raised breads.
Jowar grain is also malted (germinated), and in this form it finds its way into various processed products, including beer and baby foods. The grains of certain varieties pop like popcorn when heated. Indians eat the light and tasty product directly or as a flavoring in baked goods.
And sorghum feeds more than just India's people: its stalks are a major source of fodder. According to some reports, nothing can match its combination of high yield and nutritional quality. Varieties with juicy, sweet stalks have been developed. Cattle find those particularly delicious.
Perhaps 80 percent of India's cultivated sorghums are those (known as "durras") that are the dominant type in Ethiopia, North Africa, and along the Sahara's southern fringes. Many improved strains have been developed. They are grown mainly in the plains and rely on the summer rains, although some are grown under irrigation.
Jowar is notably important on the black-cotton soils, which are notoriously difficult to farm. It is one of the few crops that withstands the wildly fluctuating water tables that produce bottomless mud in the wet season and something resembling cracked concrete in the dry. An ability to extract moisture from deep in the heavy vertisol clay is among the crop's greatest qualities for India.