Is Fonio the New Quinoa?

August 24, 2019

Prior to the spring release of the schedule for the third annual Slow Food Nations (SFN) conference, held mid-July in Denver, Colorado, I had never heard of fonio. No doubt very few people outside the farming communities in the Sahel region of Africa, where the ancient grain is grown, ever have. But as the founder of Yolélé Foods, Pierre Thiam is working tirelessly to change all that—and soon.

You couldn’t dream up someone better suited to the task. Born in Dakar, Senegal, the New York-based chef built his name incorporating African flavors into restaurant menus around the city before opening fast-casual Teranga in Harlem earlier this year. He’s authored two well-received cookbooks devoted to the recipes of Senegal, with a third—a primer on fonio—dropping this October. And his compelling TEDTalk about the grain has been viewed more than a million times.

Now this ambassador of West African cuisine is creating a supply chain to ensure its discovery by the rest of the world: Yolélé Foods’ fonio is available for online purchase now, as well as in some grocery stores on the East Coast, and it will be sold at Whole Foods across the country by next year.

I had the rare opportunity not only to hear Thiam speak at his SFN seminar, “A Taste of West Africa,” but also to interview him onstage during his cooking demonstration, “Fonio, the Ancient Miracle Grain,” where he passed around a cup for the audience to examine.

“It looks like sand,” he pointed out. “It’s tiny, but this grain can make a lot of change in the part of the world where I’m from.”

Here’s what you need to know about fonio.

What Is Fonio?

“This is probably the oldest cultivated grain in the African countries,” Thiam said, estimating that it has served as a food crop for some 5,000 years. “For perspective, quinoa has been cultivated for 3,000 years.”

Its longevity speaks to its paramount utility in the Sahel, an area south of the Sahara Desert that “extends from Senegal all the way to Djibouti, from West to East Africa,” according to Thiam. “That whole area is dry, nothing grows, and fonio thrives in that region.”

In fact, it grows with supreme ease. In addition to being drought-resistant, Thiam said, “it’s called ‘the lazy farmer’s crop,’ because all the farmers have to do is wait for the first rain, and then they throw the fonio seeds on the ground. They don’t need to prepare the soil, they just throw it.” After two months, it’s ready for harvest: “It’s one of the fastest-maturing grains, if not the fastest.”

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