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There’s a new ancient grain for Americans to get excited about

A woman gathers fonio in Mali
A woman gathers fonio in Mali
Photo: DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY (Getty Images)

If some grains are ancient and unchanged for thousands of years, how is it that modern Americans are just discovering them now? Remember how crazy we all went for quinoa? Now a new ancient grain has appeared on the U.S. market: fonio.

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A member of the millet family, fonio originated in West Africa and was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, who called it “the seed of the universe.” It is tiny, but mighty. A primer in HuffPost extols its many virtues: “Fonio is also a gluten-free grain with a low glycemic index, making it ideal for gluten-sensitive eaters and those who monitor their blood sugar.... Fonio is also high in the amino acids methionine and cysteine, both of which promote healthy hair, skin and nail growth but are not present in any other grain.” It’s also lower in calories than brown rice or quinoa. It doesn’t require deep plowing, which is harmful to soil, and it can be grown in many climates.

Yeah, yeah, but how does it taste? The HuffPost article was a bit vague on that point. Pierre Thiam, co-founder and president of Yolélé Foods, a Brooklyn importer that sells fonio grown primarily on small farms in West Africa, describes it as “‘light and fluffy’ with ‘a slightly nutty, earthy flavor.’ He said that it ‘soaks up spices and sauces beautifully’ and that it can ‘replace any grain in your favorite recipes ... you can even use it in baked goods.’” You can prepare it on the stovetop or in the microwave. The Yolélé website quotes the old Bambara saying “Fonio never embarrasses the cook,” meaning that if you screw up, there’s an easy fix.

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So why has it taken fonio so long to get here? HuffPost has a fragment of a quote from Thiam about how it’s been “stifled by colonization.” Maybe it didn’t make the trip through the Middle Passage with other West African foods, like jollof rice (which became jambalaya) or soupou kanja (gumbo)? And maybe the economy of small farms wasn’t big enough to sustain exporting around the world?

Anyway, Yolélé sells fonio straight up and also in packets of flavored pilafs so we can now try them for ourselves and find out what we’ve been missing for the past 5,000 years.

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.

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DISCUSSION

jollof rice (which became jambalaya)

Jambalaya came from paella.