Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Fonio Files

As of late, I've become obsessed with finding fonio. Fonio is a grain native to West Africa - in fact it is considered the oldest African domesticate. And people have liked the taste for thousands of years. But outside of West Africa, nobody has really heard of it.

My curiosity about this exceptionally nutritious crop started one Sunday during an episode of The Splendid Table. During one segment, host Lynne Rossetto Kasper interviewed Senegalese-American chef Pierre Thiam about the cuisine of Senegal, his Brooklyn, NY, restaurant Le Grand Dakar, and his new cookbook Yolele! Recipes From the Heart of Senegal. During the interview, they discuss the African miracle grain fonio, which Thiam tells Rossetto Kasper is almost impossible to ruin. It can be cooked somewhat like couscous. It can also be cooked in the microwave. But I was able to ruin my first batch, and after I did so (creating, in essence, a very lovely fonio hockey puck), I decided to find an actual recipe.

In honor of Vancouver 2010, the durable yet tasty fonio hockey puck.

Thiam includes a recipe for sesame fonio in his cookbook. Fortunately, it was sitting right there on the Splendid Table website. Even better, I had all the ingredients (or similar ones).

For sesame fonio (complete recipe is here), you need to stir fry 1/2 cup of black sesame seeds in a few teaspoons of peanut (or in my case, olive) oil.

Taken with the "Food" setting on my new camera. Looks a little like hot asphalt, doesn't it?

To 3 cups of salted boiling water, add the sesame seeds along with a cup of fonio. Reduce the heat - and I mean way down, otherwise you'll have sputtering fonio bubbling up in your face. I found it helpful to stir the whole thing. After a few minutes, it will absorb the water. Make sure you remove it from the heat and fluff it up.

The fonio has a pleasant, slightly nutty flavor, which the sesame complements well. I also found that the fonio absorbed some of the black sesame color, making it look like a big grayish blob with little black specks inside it. But the taste was quite pleasing, a little different from other grains I have eaten, in a good way. I also discovered through experimentation that fonio tastes quite good with soy sauce.

Sesame fonio, plated with stir fried baby lettuce and Nigerian-style deer stew

Now here's the difficult part: how does one find fonio in Baltimore? It's easy if you know where to look. You can only find it in African and African-Caribbean markets. Whole Foods doesn't carry it. Giant certainly doesn't carry it. Not even H-Mart carries it, and they have everything. Lucky for Baltimore, there are a few African markets in and around the city. I got mine from the Afro-Tropical Food Market across from the Senator, in Belvedere Square. I got 500 grams (1/2 a kilo, or about 1.1 lbs) of Deggeh brand fonio, imported from Mali via the Bronx, NY, for $4. The Splendid Table website also gives various mail order sources for fonio under the recipe for sesame fonio.


LoveFeast Table said...

There are a few African markets on Harford Rd. I will pop in and see if I can find this! We love discovering new grains!

John said...

I bet this would also taste good with roasted pine nuts and garlic.

Kitt said...

Good for you for not gibing up! Sounds like a rewarding experiment.

You have a Food setting on your camera? Crazy!