What Is Fonio? All About the New ‘It’ Grain

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Quinoa and couscous, move aside—fonio is *the* super grain to watch out for in the world of vegan cooking. While the aforementioned grains are commonly used in many plant-based recipes, fonio is one nutrient-packed grain that’s deserving of a prominent spot in any vegan dish. But what is it? And how do you cook with it?

What Is Fonio?

Fonio may be the latest “it” grain—but it’s far from new. Native to West Africa, the ancient grain has been around for thousands of years.

Often likened to a cross between quinoa and couscous in terms of its taste, appearance, and texture—it has a nutty, earthy flavor. The millet is naturally vegan, gluten-free, and relatively easy to digest.

The grain is also incredibly nutrient-dense. In fact, it has more nutritional value than most other grains. It’s a good source of iron, fiber, calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin B, and phosphorus. It also has a low glycemic index and is rich in essential amino acids, such as methionine and cysteine, which are deficient in most other grains. And it features lots of protein. One cup of it contains 12 grams of protein, compared to quinoa, which contains 8 grams.

Fonio: An Ancient Grain

Although Africans have cultivated it for thousands of years, Senegal-raised and New York City-based chef and restaurateur Pierre Thiam helped put fonio on the map. In 2017, he gave a TEDGlobal talk entitled “A forgotten ancient grain that could help Africa prosper.”

While conducting research for his first cookbook, Thiam explained that he traveled to various regions in Senegal. There, he says he “rediscovered” the ancient grain, which he says had “all but disappeared from the urban Senegalese diet.” 

“It turns out that fonio had been cultivated for more than 5,000 years and is probably the oldest cultivated cereal in Africa,” he explained. “Once a popular grain on much of the continent, fonio was grown all the way to ancient Egypt, where archaeologists found grains inside pyramids’ burial grounds.” 

In ancient times, people thought the super grain had mystical properties. “I became more interested in this grain that was deemed worth taking to the afterlife by early Egyptians,” Thiam continues. “The Dogon, another great culture in Mali, called it ‘po,’ or ‘the seed of the universe.’ In that ancient culture’s mythology, the entire universe sprouted from a seed of fonio.” 

Myths and superstitions aside, the ancient grain is sustainable to grow. “Fonio cultivation is great for the environment,” Thiam says. “It tolerates poor soil and needs very little water, surviving where nothing else will grow.”

And of the two species of the millet—there is white and black fonio—certain varieties also mature quicker than other types of grains. Cultivators can grow white fonio in as little as six to eight weeks, so it’s more widely used.

Where to Buy Fonio

Thiam says the grain wasn’t as readily available previously for two reasons. Some people once viewed it as “country-people food” and due to lack of production technology in the region.

“Imagine that fonio is consumed all across the globe,” he explains in his TED talk. “Fonio needs to be available at a consistent quality for commercial users, such as food manufacturers and restaurant chains. That’s the part we’re missing.”

So Thiam founded his own company. He, along with culinary industry veteran Philip Teverow, launched African food company Yolélé Foods. And in May 2020, the brand released its signature product, Yolélé Fonio, in Whole Foods Markets across the country. The brand also launched a range of fonio pilafs.

In addition to Whole Foods, other brands of the millet can now be found at specialty stores, African markets, or online

5 Vegan Fonio Recipes to Try

Fonio can be prepared similar to that of couscous: You can soak it or cook it on the stove.

Thiam explains: “As a chef, what first struck me was its delicate taste and its versatility.” He continues: “It can be turned into salad, served as noodles, used in baking, or simply as a substitute for any other grains in your favorite recipes.” 

Fonio can be cooked to be fluffy like quinoa or creamy. In addition to salads, fluffy fonio can be added to pilafs or Buddha bowls. Creamy fonio can be served as a cereal. Simply add in your favorite fresh fruits like blueberries or bananas and a dash of cinnamon for a nutritious breakfast you’ll be thinking about long after the last bite.

If you’re looking for delicious-looking fonio recipes to try—here are five to get you started. 

Basic Fonio Recipe

This easy fonio recipe is by Yolélé Foods. A basic method for making fonio, the recipe requires only four simple ingredients: fonio, water, salt, and olive oil. Get the recipe here.

Fonio Balls in African Peanut Sauce 

For a more savory recipe, try making these fonio balls, which feature an African peanut sauce In addition to fonio, the balls feature oats, harissa paste, diced onions, garlic, tomato paste, and a number of seasonings. These include cumin, paprika, coriander, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, fenugreek, and ground chili. Get the recipe here.

Ethiopian Sweet Potato Fonio Tacos

For all the sweet potato lovers out there, try whipping up fonio in this Ethiopian-inspired recipe. The sweet potato fonio tacos feature chickpeas and a dairy-free mint yogurt sauce. Get the recipe here.

Turmeric Coconut Fonio

In this hearty recipe, fonio is cooked in a creamy turmeric coconut broth. In addition to coconut milk and turmeric, this recipe calls for garlic, onion, ginger, thyme, green onion, red bell pepper, and salt. Get the recipe here.

West African Vegan Fonio Salad 

For a lighter option, opt for this West African millet salad, featuring mangos and roasted cashews. The oil-free, vegan recipe features cucumber, red onion, cherry tomatoes, parsley, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Get the recipe here.


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