Fonio: the grain that would defeat quinoa as king among foodies
“I don’t want Americans knowing about fonio,” says Fatoumata Fadiga, sternly shaking her head. Fadiga, an immigrant from 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.
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.
Fonio is currently for sale in New York’s West African shops, amid pungent smells and little baggies of mysterious-looking herbs with no labels; it costs about $6 for a 32oz bag. Fonio can also be purchased online from importers.
But Thiam knows that in order for fonio to appeal to the average US consumer it needs to be rebranded and presented in an American-friendly context. He’s currently designing packaging that would look lovely sitting on a shelf in Whole Foods or selling on a gourmet food website. Branding and packaging are key to fonio’s American adventure. “You really realize how superficial people are,” says Thiam, with a laugh.
Thiam knows what he’s up against in trying to get fonio to become popular. The average cosmpolitan American eats an array of foreign foods, from baba ganoush to burritos, but suggest a bowl of beef knuckle soup or thiebou jen, the classic Senegalese dish of fish with rice, and you’ll likely get a blank stare. “People just don’t realize that under the right circumstances, no one eats better than us,” says Thiam. With the exception of Ethiopian cuisine, he’s found that even most New Yorkers can’t conceptualize food from sub-Saharan . It’s completely alien to many.
It’s time for that to change, Thiam says.
Since his 1989 arrival in New York, Thiam, has devoted the majority of his culinary career to demystifying Senegalese foods for the non-Senegalese.
Thiam generated some culinary buzz with his two trendy Senegalese restaurants, now closed, in Brooklyn, where he lives with his American wife. He served fresh fish stuffed with peppers, chicken with lime onion sauce, salads of black eyed peas or avocado and mango. Many Senegalese dishes have French, Vietnamese and Lebanese influences, vestiges of Senegal’s colonized past.
“My goal was to introduce this cuisine to the community that adopted me, but make it accessible,” explains Thiam.
Yet despite Thiam’s efforts, most New Yorkers who have not been to West Africa are still not familiar with Senegalese foods. Senegalese comprise a small immigrant group by the city’s standards, approximately 9,000, compared to over 350,000 Chinese for example, and five Chinatowns throughout the boroughs. There is an area nicknamed “Little Senegal”, on Harlem’s 116th Street, not far from Columbia University. The streets are full of West African shops and no frills eateries, but non-West Africans rarely go except for the tourists who found it in a guidebook or the occasional intrepid foodie. You can even purchase DVDs of Senegalese or Malian music, or traditional robes and skirt sets. There are grocery stores and cafes that serve heaping $10 plates, possibly stewed cassava leaves or spicy lamb stew, usually with rice or fonio.
One facet of AfroEats takes well-known chefs to Senegal; they sample foods, visit markets and learn cooking methods from Senegalese chefs. Thiam hopes that at some point, a chef like Mario Batali will serve risotto made with fonio – and state it on the menu – instead of Arborio rice. Perhaps artisanal pink salt from Senegal’s Lake Retba will sit on a prestigious restaurant’s tables, as well as dishes of baobab ice cream or coffees favored with Selim pepper. AfroEats also aims to make Senegal a culinary travel destination, similar to what Peru has accomplished.
That’s not easy either.
“ I’m working on two fronts. There are a lot of biases in Africa, ” says Thiam. “There’s a stigma with everything that’s local” – a situation that’s difficult to imagine in New York, where anything locally -sourced is worshiped among locavore and foodie types.
Thiam never thought he’d be extolling the virtues of fonio or organizing culinary exchange trips to Senegal when he arrived here. His short visit turned into a 24-year stay. While on a stopover from Dakar to Ohio, where he had intended to study physics and chemistry, Thiam visited a friend. He lived in an exceptionally seedy, rat-infested Times Square hotel, full of Senegalese immigrants, at a time when Times Square was dangerous and crime-ridden. On Thiam’s third day, all his cash was stolen.
“From my transportation to Ohio, to like, my breakfast the next day,” recalls Thiam, who laughs about it now. He immediately jumped into bussing tables at a West Village restaurant where the kitchen captivated him. He was astounded to find men there. “It was very new. I was from a culture where the kitchen belongs to women,” says Thiam.
Too embarrassed and proud to ask his family for help or return home to Senegal, Thiam remained in Manhattan. He meticulously studied his new textbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Childs, and worked his way up from dish washer to prep cook; salad person to line cook; finally chef and restaurateur.
However, not everyone in Little Senegal is happy about the idea of mass-fonio-ization of the American diet.
Will Thiam’s fonio be certified Fair Trade? Thiam says his fonio is fair trade in the sense that he conducts his business fairly, simply put, “They trust me and I trust them.”
But here’s one sign: two blocks north of Little Senegal, an upscale American-owned bistro featuring Afro-Asian-American cuisine serves an entree of wild bass with “African fonio” for $26. Serving fonio in a trendy Harlem restaurant to a mix of New York diners would be a definite nudge into the culinary limelight. But in an odd twist, it’s been revealed they are serving faux fonio; it’s just millet cultivated in the US. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery for fonio, which has now achieved enough modest recognition to be counterfeited.
An earlier version of this story referenced ‘The Joy of Cooking’ rather than ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking.’
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