- Catering Services
- Own a Jerry’s
caterFonio (pronounced FON-yo) is an ancient grain native to west Africa. It’s been grown and eaten in Senegal for centuries but can’t be found in the US outside of African specialty shops. It’s an ancient grain that’s high in protein, easy to prepare, and has a nutty flavor. Some compare it’s look and taste to a cross between couscous and quinoa. It reaches maturity quickly making it highly sustainable and it’s easy to grow too.
So why haven’t stateside consumers had access? Chef Pierre Thiam, born in Senegal, has an idea.
“I don’t want Americans knowing about fonio,” says Fatoumata Fadiga, sternly shaking her head. Fadiga, an immigrant from Guinea in West Africa, stands in a matching flowered shirt and skirt in the back room of her New York beauty supply shop after a lunch of fonio with stewed chicken and okra puree.
Fonio will be the next quinoa in America, if Pierre Thiam has his way. The chef and restauranteur has big plans for the little grain. In 2008 Thiam published a Senegalese cookbook – Yolele!, which translates to “let the good times roll” in the Wolof language – so that western cooks could easily prepare Senegalese dishes. He even battled celebrity chef Bobby Flay over papaya (and lost) on the garish, dry ice fog infused Iron Chef show, a show whose brashness is an odd fit for Thiam’s affable, calm demeanor. Since the late 1990s he’s been cooking high-end Pan-African influenced food for his catering company, serving a range of clients from the Clinton Foundation to Mos Def.
His next project is fonio. Fonio is a kind of millet that has a nutty flavor – a cross between couscous and quinoa in both appearance and texture. It has been cultivated in West Africa for thousands of years, and is a favorite in salads, stews, porridges and even ground into flour. It’s gluten-free and nutritious because of two amino acids, cystine and methionine, which make it a favorite to be baked into bread for diabetics, those who are gluten intolerant or have celiac disease. It is, in short, the perfect new grain for juice-cleansing, diet-conscious yogis … if they can get their hands on it.
Thiam, a chef and entrepreneur from Senegal living in New York City, is preparing to import fonio by the end of 2014 for mainstream US consumption, working with a women-owned and -operated collective in Senegal near the Mali and Guinea border. Fonio will start its US journey, as so many immigrants do, in New York. In the city’s Little Senegal neighborhood, you can order fonio á la sauce mafé, peanut beef stew with fonio.