Fonio (pictured above) was the main reason for our journey to Kedougou, which is located in the southeastern region of Senegal, near the border of Guinea and Mali.
But fonio is more than just a famine food.
It was once a major crop across Africa and was always considered the food for kings because of its delicate taste. In ancient Egypt, fonio was found in burial grounds as the grain chosen to accompany the souls in the afterlife. The Dogon people of Mali call it “Po” or “the seed of the universe.” Fonio is more than 5,000 years old and is arguably the oldest-cultivated grain in the world.
When my car drove in to Kedougou, which was a chaotic 14-hour ride from Dakar at 109 degrees, I experienced three flat tires in a row with my traveling buddies, Evan Sung, his wife Jeanna, the seven-people team from GLP Films, and our driver Ousseynou. And needless to say, the drive had taken a toll on our crew.
However, all the pain seemed to dissipate from our aching bodies when Mrs. Aya Ndiaye — and the 25 founding members of her cooperative, the Koba Club — greeted us with songs, dance, and a feast for kings.
Watch the Koba Club greet us here:
GLP Films’ crew had come along to make two short films commissioned by National Geographic around our itinerary with a focus on fonio.
For the past two years, Evan and I have been coming to Senegal regularly in preparation for my next book. Our mission is simple: Crisscross Senegal, my country, in order to meet and document the experience of food producers, farmers, fishermen, and other people involved in the food production so that we can follow the food process from the source to the bowl.
Consequently, “Senegal, From the Source to the Bowl” is the working title of my upcoming book.
We are now in the final stages of the book project, and this last trip is dedicated to the Kedougou region in general, and one of its most-enterprising daughters Mrs. N’diaye in particular.
N’diaye started the Koba Club cooperative more than 20 years ago. Her goal was to promote the production of local ingredients, such as fonio, Baobab fruit, Palm Fruit oil, and Shea butter. Today, their work is paying off and the Koba Club is now helping other women to organize. In fact, their cooperative has been recognized as an example across Kedougou, and N’diaye even received a special prize from the President of Senegal.
Using fonio, the Koba Club prepared a banquet for us, displaying several variations of the classics of Senegalese cuisine on a low bamboo table.
“Thiebou Jenn,” a twist of the Senegalese National dish, substitutes rice with fonio and slowly simmers in an intensely rich tomato broth flavored with fermented conch, root vegetables, eggplant, cabbage and a “thiof” (Senegalese people’s favorite fish), stuffed with a parsley and spice mixture called “rof.”
We also had “Yassa Poulet,” chicken grilled over wood charcoal and served with onion lime Confit over steamed fonio. For dessert, they served us fonio pound cake and “thiakry,” with the fonio replacing the traditional coarse millet couscous, and served with a homemade sweet milk curd called “sow.”
For drinks, we were served a mint-scented hibiscus infusion and a thick, sweet and sour baobab fruit juice that reminded of lassi.
Fonio is great for its versatility and as the Bambara saying goes, it “never embarrasses the cook.”
Want to try fonio for yourself? Try my fonio recipe here:
Fonio Salad (vegan, gluten-free)
Fonio: Fonio (Digitaria exilis) has been grown in Africa for centuries. It is one of the most-nutritious of all grains. It is rich in methionine and cysteine and has amino acids that are vital to human health and deficient in today’s major cereals: wheat, barley, maize, rice and rye.
- 1-cup fonio
- 1Tbs. salt dissolved in 1/4c water
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 1 ts. salt
- ½ ts. freshly ground black pepper
- 1 c. peanut or canola oil
- 1 bunch parsley, finely chopped
- 1 bunch mint, finely chopped
- 1 cucumber, peeled and diced
- 2 plum tomatoes, diced
- Wash the fonio with cold running water and drain well. Place the fonio in the top of a steamer lined with cheesecloth. Set over simmering water, cover, and steam the fonio about 15 minutes. Remove from heat, and fluff with a fork. Drizzle with salted water and steam again until the grains are tender. (Alternately, fonio can be prepared in a microwave by adding enough water to cover in a bowl and cooking until tender, 6-8 minutes.)
- In a small mixing bowl, combine the lemon juice with the salt and pepper and whisk to dissolve. Slowly pour in the olive oil still whisking to emulsify.
- Place the cooked fonio in a large bowl and add parsley, mint, cucumber, and tomatoes. Pour enough dressing over the fonio mixture to coat the grains well. Toss and serve.
Pierre Thiam (pictured) has appeared on several TV and radio programs, including the Food Network’s “Iron Chef,” “Gourmet Getaways,” “Sara’s Secrets,” ABC’s “Eyewitness News,” Fox 5’s “Good Day NY,” NBC’s “TODAY,” “Martha Stewart Living Radio,” and NPR’s “Splendid Table.” He was also profiled on CNN’s “Inside Africa.”