Jollof Fonio from “The Fonio Cookbook: An Ancient Grain Rediscovered” by Pierre Thiam. LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LFIGUERAS@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Kitchen Curious: Get cooking with ancient African supergrain fonio

“Today, our global diet consists largely of four crops: corn, wheat, soy and rice. Meanwhile, thousands of nutritious, resilient, planet-saving foods are simply being ignored,” writes Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam in his newest book, “The Fonio Cookbook: An Ancient Grain Rediscovered” (Lake Isle Press, $24.95).

Fonio is a tiny grain about the size of quinoa with a nutty, earthy flavor. Although cultivated in Africa for more than 5,000 years, this drought-resistant cereal is now grown almost exclusively by smallholder farmers in West Africa and is relatively unknown outside their communities, Thiam explains. (Fonio was unknown to me, but I managed to find these tan-colored grains in aisle 6 of the Buford Highway Farmers Market.)

The African supergrain fonio is sold at the Buford Highway Farmers Market in Doraville. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: Henri Hollis

In this 176-page, single-subject cookbook, Thiam not only makes the case for nutrient-rich fonio’s potential to help feed a rapidly growing world population, but also the culinary versatility of this easily digestible, gluten-free, low-glycemic grain.

Beyond traditional West African dishes, Thiam proposes fast-cooking fonio as a substitute for rice in dishes like Seafood & Okra Stew, as the grain that gifts heft to a pilaf bright with spring vegetables, as a filler in a frittata and the star or supporting element in many other recipes that bring this ancient grain into the modern home kitchen.

Fonio is traditionally steamed, but it can be prepared easily and quickly on the stovetop. Once you’ve cooked the fonio, use it in place of rice to make jollof, a West African dish that combines the grains with tomato sauce. If you want more of a flavor boost in your jollof fonio, add garlic and hot peppers when frying the onions, prior to adding the tomato paste. 

Raw fonio can be stored for up to 2 years in a sealed container or resealable plastic bag at room temperature or in the refrigerator.

What fonio looks like before processing. CONTRIBUTED BY ADAM BARTOS
Photo: Adam Bartos

Basic Fonio — Stovetop Method

Adding oil is optional but if you do, the grains will have a richer, fluffier texture and will keep separated. Cooked fonio can be kept refrigerated in a covered plastic or glass container for 2 or 3 days.

Basic Fonio — Stovetop Method
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup raw fonio (available at the Buford Highway Farmers Market), rinsed and drained well
  • 1 tablespoon peanut, vegetable or olive oil (optional)
  • Combine the water and salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the fonio and stir once. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cover tightly. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the water is absorbed.
  • Turn off the heat and keep the pot covered for another 2 minutes. Fluff with a fork. Mix in the oil (if using), and serve. Makes 3-4 cups.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per cup, without oil, based on 4 cups total: 223 calories (percent of calories from fat, 2), 5 grams protein, 53 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 1 gram fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 536 milligrams sodium.

Jollof Fonio

Many West African nations, particularly Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, have an ongoing fight over who makes the best jollof rice. If you make jollof with fonio instead, it is just as flavorful and even more nutritious.

Jollof Fonio
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • 1 teaspoon salt, plus more if needed
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 cups cooked fonio
  • Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and tomato paste and reduce the heat to low. Stir gently with a wooden spoon for about 5 minutes, until the paste is dark red but not burnt. If necessary, add a little water or some of the vegetable broth to avoid scorching.
  • Stir in the vegetable broth and season with the salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the oil rises to the surface, another 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Fold in the cooked fonio until well combined. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper and serve hot. Serves 4.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 298 calories (percent of calories from fat, 22), 6 grams protein, 56 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 8 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 639 milligrams sodium.

Recipes reprinted with permission from “The Fonio Cookbook” by Pierre Thiam, Lake Isle Press Inc.

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