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Fonio is naturally vegan, gluten-free, and packed with vitamins and amino acids. It also boasts 12 grams of protein per cup.

September 14, 2017

Chef Pierre Thiam recently conducted a TED talk where he introduced his listeners to an ancient grain called fonio. Fonio is a West African grain that's been cultivated in the region for thousands of years. It has a nutty aroma and pebble-like texture, like a cross between couscous and quinoa. The grain is naturally vegan, gluten-free, and packed with vitamins. It's also rich in methionine and cystine, both essential amino acids, and boasts 12 grams of protein per cup.

Like rice, fonio grains are very fine and swell to nearly twice their size after cooking. Traditionally, fonio is used to make a breakfast porridge, but can also substitute for your favorite grain in most recipes. Need some inspiration? You could make a grain bowl with a few roasted vegetables, serve it on the side as a salad, or mix it with nuts and raisins for a fonio pilaf. It’s an easy replacement for bulgur in tabbouleh or a qualified stand-in for couscous.

Fonio is a type of millet — there are two species of the grain, white fonio being the most widely consumed. The plant can thrive in poor growing conditions, and it only takes six to eight weeks to grow and harvest the grains. This super-speedy turnaround time could revolutionize the economy for countries that market the grain internationally. 

In his Ted talk, Thiam says, “Ancient grains are getting more popular, and sales of gluten-free items are growing in the US —16.4 percent since 2013, making it a 23.3-billion-dollar industry. How could fonio partake in this market share?” Its potential growth could be a win for all parties involved, and Thiam wants to see that happen. 

The chef stumbled across the grain when he was conducting research for his cookbook, Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowlin a remote village in Senegal. He realized that fonio was once a prominent grain to the culture but had almost vanished from the modern urban diet in Dakar, the country’s capital. The grain is now mostly eaten in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Nigeria.

The good news? You don't have to wait for Whole Foods to stock this new pantry staple — you can purchase fonio on Amazon for less than $16.