Fonio: The most nutritious grain you’ve probably never heard of

A savory grain bowl made with the ancient grain fonio.
A savory grain bowl made with the ancient grain fonio. (Yolélé Foods)

The ancient grain fonio grows in the southern edge of the Sahel of sub-Saharan Africa, a semi-arid belt where the land is sandy, rocky, and generally unwelcoming to most crops. Gluten-free and high in protein, iron, and fiber, it’s been said that fonio is the oldest and most nutritious grain you’ve probably never heard of. Because it is grown by rural West African farmers without good equipment and with a fragmented supply chain, it’s difficult if not impossible to bring substantial quantities to the marketplace. Yolélé Foods in Brooklyn, which imports fonio, is working to change that. The company has partnered with SOS Sahel to help farmers increase their productivity, better the supply chain, and in turn, enhance the farmers’ livelihood. Senegalese chef, notable cookbook author, and restaurateur Pierre Thiam founded Yolélé Foods in partnership with Philip Teverow, a consultant to food entrepreneurs who helped grow the Dean & DeLuca brand. “Turning fonio into food is difficult unless you have equipment,” says Teverow. A shift is soon to come, for they have also spearheaded the first industrial scale mill in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, to efficiently process the grain and boost supply. “People should expect to find it on store shelves within the year,” says Teverow. Fonio cooks in minutes, has a nutty flavor, and is an appealing side dish, like quinoa or couscous. While growing up in Senegal, Thiam ate fonio as you would rice. It drinks up the flavors of a stew and retains its firmness. The grain is used in salad, turned into croquettes, added to stuffing, cakes, and cookies. “It works so well as a cold grain salad yet it works just as well as a hot morning bowl when I combine it with steel cut oats and fruit toppings,” says Jerome Picca, chef and partner of Mighty Love Food in Boston. A member of Yolélé’s team introduced him to the African supergrain. It’s not unreasonable to predict fonio could one day become the new quinoa. For now, Yolélé Foods fonio is available at (three 10-ounce bags, $19.95)