A Chef’s Dream to Restore an Ancient West African Grain

A Chef’s Dream to Restore an Ancient West African Grain


Pierre Thiam, an American chef from Senegal, still remembers how when he was growing up in Dakar, some families in the countryside sent their children off to school with a little fonio tucked into their bags for luck. An ancient, sandy-colored grain, fonio was cultivated for thousands of years across West Africa and still is. Thiam remembers eating the grain too, though it wasn’t really prized, at least not in the way it used to be.

Standing barefoot in a friend’s apartment in Manhattan, where we met before a recent snowstorm to make lunch, Thiam explained how local grains like fonio lost some cultural currency around the time of French colonization. That’s when the country began importing broken rice — fragmented grains, kept aside during the milling process — from Vietnam and other parts of Asia. “We make so many amazing dishes from broken rice, it absorbs all the flavors, it tastes good,” Thiam said, “but we’ve been independent for more than 50 years. Why are we the largest importer of broken rice in the world?”

As the U.S. market for ancient grains has grown, Thiam has become a champion for fonio. In New York, he cooks fonio to serve under whole roasted fish and meaty stews, in warm vegetable salads, mashed into fritters and in oatmeal-like bowls with fruit and yogurt. He hosts multicourse feasts, centered on the grain, eager to expand its audience and fuel its demand, and he talks about it with devotion and authority at conferences. “Fonio is considered country-people food,” he said, shooing away a cat that had tiptoed into the kitchen. Traditionally, fonio was pounded in a large mortar and pestle, to remove its armorlike husk, then washed and dried outdoors. “And because it was so difficult to process, it became unpopular.”

Though fonio is often referred to as a forgotten grain in marketing materials, it wasn’t forgotten by everyone. “Women-run cooperatives put fonio back on the map,” Thiam told me. He recently founded Yolele Foods, which imports the grain, grown and processed by these cooperatives, to the United States, and he plans to open a large-scale mill in Dakar. Thiam’s dream is that as fonio finds more fans in the U.S., it will do the same in Senegal, and that one day in Dakar, fonio will be just as easy to find as a baguette.

Photo


Credit
Gentl and Hyers for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Amy Wilson.

Thiam brought water to a rolling boil, stirred grains right into it, turned off the heat and let it sit. Quick-cooking fonio, which has been partly cooked, then dehydrated, takes about five minutes to soak up all the water it needs. As he fluffed the hot fonio with a fork, it became more airy than clumpy. A comforting steam rose, and it smelled sweet, almost toasted, like breakfast cereal.

Thiam left Senegal for the U.S. in the late 1980s, on a student visa, and though he was meant to be studying physics and chemistry, as he did at the University of Dakar before the government shut it down amid student strikes, he worked in New York restaurants instead — first as a busboy, later as a chef. One of those restaurants was Italian, but the Senegalese food that Thiam cooked on his days off, and for staff meals, quickly made it onto the menu as daily specials. He called his mother to write down her recipes, expanding his repertoire one dish at a time, and later studied the cuisine more methodically on research trips back home, leaning over his aunties, asking questions, taking notes.



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