What to Know about Fonio, an Ancient West African Super Grain

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April 25, 2022
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It cooks as quickly as couscous, it’s a nutritional powerhouse, it’s budget-friendly, it’s gluten-free, it’s good for the environment. We’re talking about fonio, an ancient super-grain seen all across West Africa.

In a video with Food Network, James Beard Award-winning chef JJ Johnson, who has a New York City-based restaurant called Fieldtrip, extolls the benefits of fonio — and we thought everyone should hear.

Uncooked Fonio Grain in a Bowl


Uncooked Fonio Grain in a Bowl

Photo by: Michelle Lee Photography/Getty Images

Michelle Lee Photography/Getty Images

What Is Fonio?

Fonio has been grown in West Africa for over 5,000 years, making it the longest-cultivated grain in Africa. It's traditionally served to dinner guests to honor them, or enjoyed by those who need some extra luck (think: pregnant mammas or kids on their first day of school).

Unlike other crops that are sucking our planet dry, fonio doesn’t need a lot of water to grow. In fact, it doesn’t need rich soil to grow either. That’s why you see it growing in areas that don’t have a ton of water resources. According to chef JJ Johnson, 1 cup of dry fonio turns into 4 cups of cooked grain. Do any other grains you know multiply like that?

It’s becoming easier and easier to buy fonio. You might be able to spot fonio at your local Whole Foods, and you can certainly snag some online.

What Does Fonio Taste Like?

Fonio has a rich, nutty flavor and a texture that’s similar to couscous. The raw granules resemble sand, but when cooked, they become light and fluffy and absorb the flavors around them.

What Are the Nutritional Benefits of Fonio?

Fonio is rich in nutrients you can’t find in other grains. The low-carb grain is rich in fiber and iron. But unlike other cereal grains (i.e. wheat, rice, barley and oats), it has high amounts of the amino acids cystine and methionine, vital to everyday bodily functions.

Is Fonio Gluten-Free?

The answer is a resounding yes. What's more, you can turn a bag of raw fonio into gluten-free fonio flour. DIY fonio flour is an inexpensive alternative to all the gluten-free flours on the market. Simply add the raw grain to your blender and whir it up. Chef JJ Johnson says bring on all the fonio pancakes, fonio fried chicken and eggplant Parmesan coated in fonio.

How to Cook Fonio

Chef JJ Johnson walks us through how to cook the grain. The golden ratio is 1 cup of fonio to 2 cups of liquid. You can either soak fonio in boiling water like couscous or cook it on the stove. Once you’ve cooked it, add in flavorings like sauteed vegetables or turmeric.

How to Make Soaked Fonio

  1. Put 1 cup fonio in a large bowl and cover it with 2 cups boiling water.
  2. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
  3. Let the fonio soak for 5 minutes.
  4. Uncover and fluff with a fork.

How to Make Stovetop Fonio

  1. Add a little bit of oil to a pan. Olive oil, coconut oil or whatever you like cooking with works.
  2. Add 1 cup fonio and toast it until its nutty.
  3. Add 2 cups water and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes.

Fonio Recipes

Perfect Fonio

Fonio is an ancient grain that's been cultivated for thousands of years in West Africa. It's naturally vegan and gluten-free and is sometimes called a "super-grain" because of its high levels of iron and protein. Fonio (and other millets) are typically used to make porridge as part of a breakfast meal in certain West African countries. However, like any other grain, fonio can be cooked in various ways. This version is made like steamed rice, and flavored with cumin, star anise and a little bit of coconut oil. Enjoy it on its own, or serve it with a stew, soup, meat or sauteed vegetables.

Jollof Fonio

Jollof rice originated in the Wolof or Jolof Empire in the Senegambian region, and today the dish of rice cooked in a tomato (or tomato and bell pepper) stew is one of the most recognized West African dishes around the world. Rice is not the only grain that can be used for jollof--jollof beans and jollof pasta are also popular. This version uses fonio, an ancient grain that's been cultivated for thousands of years in West Africa. Serve it on its own, or pair it with some vegetables, plantains and your favorite protein.

Fonio-Stuffed Acorn Squash

Fonio, a grain native to West Africa, adds super fiber and protein to this stuffed squash dish but still feels light and great. The flavors of West Africa and the Caribbean are dear to my heart, and this recipe is a love letter them.

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