Kitchen Curious: Get cooking with ancient African supergrain fonio

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

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

"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

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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

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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.

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.

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


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