Fonio, a couscous-like grain eaten in Senegal, Nigeria and other West African countries, and which is said to be the oldest cultivated grain in the world, is coming to America. The grain, which has been popularised by US-based Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam, could replicate the outstanding success of quinoaa and open a brand new export market for African farmers. Report by Leslie Gordon Goffe.
Fonio, the low-calorie, high-protein grain, which was a favourite food of ancient Egyptians and is believed by the Dogon people of Mali to be the seeds from which life on earth itself sprung, will, if all goes as planned, be available for the first time in American supermarkets at the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015.
The man behind all of this is Pierre Thiam, a Senegal-born, New York-based celebrity chef and caterer who appears frequently on cooking shows on US television.
Author of the award winning cookbook, Yolele! Recipes from the heart of Senegal, Thiam made his name in the US introducing Americans to African-style cooking.
Now Thiam, owner of a New York catering company that has prepared food with an African twist for former President Clinton, the Disney Corporation and others, is determined to introduce Americans to fonio, a grain ancient Egyptians arranged to have buried with them when they died so they had tasty food in the afterlife.
Thiam is convinced fonio can be as big a success in the US as the South American grain quinoa has been.
The favourite food of wealthy, cosmopolitan Americans in search of a healthy alternative to pasta and rice, quinoa sales have skyrocketed over the past 10 years.
Today, Bolivia and Peru, the chief growers of the grain, sell around $123m worth of quinoa each year to Europe, China and North America, with the Unites States the biggest purchaser of quinoa by far. Quinoa sales could reach a half a billion in the next few years, some analysts believe.
“When you see how quinoa arose it can be the same story for fonio,” predicts Chef Thiam, preparing a batch of fonio to eat with okra and a beef stew in his New York kitchen.
Fonio, Thiam says, is a versatile grain that can be used to make porridges or bread or can be added to salads or eaten as a side dish with a stew. And fonio can even, insists Chef Pierre, be added to beer. “I believe it has all of the possibilities of becoming the new quinoa.”
It is easy to see why Pierre Thiam is so eager to introduce American consumers to fonio, and why he wants the African grain to match quinoa’s success in the US.
Quinoa imports to the US leapt tenfold, from 5m lbs in 2004 to almost 68m lbs today, according to figures from the US Customs. Quinoa prices are up, too. In 2006, a one pound packet sold in US supermarkets for an average of around $2. Today, a one pound packet of quinoa has tripled in price, to an average of around $6.
Quinoa’s popularity in the US has been a boon to farmers in Peru and Bolivia, who receive premium prices for their produce.
Pierre Thiam is convinced there is room enough in this niche grain market for quinoa, and for fonio, too.
Fonio, he says, like quinoa, is a superfood, a grain with much higher levels of essential amino acids and other important minerals than most other grains.