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This tiny grain has big potential as a food of the future

Ancient grain fonio holds promise for the future

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A person holds fonio in their hands
Experts have identified fonio, a grass species native to the savannas of West Africa, as holding great promise for the future. Photo by Adam Bartos

Scientists discover new edible plant species every year. According to Kew’s State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2020 report, there are 7,039. Yet, an astounding 90 per cent of the world’s calories comes from just 15, with a heavy emphasis on three crops: maize, rice and wheat.

“It’s very incredible how we found ourselves in this place where we are limiting our diet to a dozen crops. And then this planet is so abundant, and we allow these crops to just disappear,” says chef, entrepreneur and activist Pierre Thiam.

National Post

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Experts have identified fonio, a grass species native to the savannas of West Africa, as holding great promise for the future, with scientists predicting it could play a role in global diets by 2050. The tiny, versatile grain is fast-growing and drought-resistant, high in B vitamins, calcium, iron and several essential amino acids.

Once a West African staple, fonio production has declined — squeezed out by maize and Asian rice crops, and an increasing dependence on imported grain, according to Kew.

Thiam and others are on a mission to change that. Fonio is at the heart of his West African food business, Yolélé, which he co-founded in 2017. He believes so strongly in its promise, he wrote a book about it — The Fonio Cookbook (2019) — and features it in his new cookbook, Simply West African, in recipes such as shrimp and grits, kale and mango salad, and a porridge merging Japanese and West African influences.

But Thiam doesn’t just see potential for fonio on the plate — he’s also introducing it to brewmasters around the world. As it turns out, it’s not just possible to make beer with the climate-friendly grain — it’s possible to make outstanding beer, The Guardian reports.

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“In addition to delicious beer, it can regenerate the planet. It can help small farmers to have income. It can tackle so many challenges,” says Thiam. Considering crops such as fonio creates opportunities, he adds. “Fonio is one example and there are thousands of others to be looked upon.”

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Bisi Alawode, co-founder of the Cambridge, Ont.-based African grocery store Mychopchop, which ships across Canada (mostly to customers in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary), grew up eating fonio in Nigeria. He and his wife, Tito Alawode, have been selling the grain whole and in flour form since they founded the store seven years ago.

Bisi likes to use fonio flour to make breakfast cereal and swallows (a paste, like fufu) to eat with vegetable soup. He enjoys the whole grain as a breakfast cereal, too — cooked similarly to quick oats — and he’s a fan of adding it to salads.

(Fonio is so easy to prepare that there’s even a Bambara expression that translates to “fonio never embarrasses the cook,” Thiam writes in The Fonio Cookbook.)

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“Within less than five minutes you have a meal ready to go. It makes it a very accessible food, very nutritious and also very delicious at the same time,” says Bisi, adding that interest in fonio is growing. “It’s becoming more popular with more folks becoming more conscious of their health, what they eat. And knowing that it’s a vegan and gluten-free meal, more and more people are beginning to have it as a daily staple.”

With its nutritional profile and sustainability benefits, Bisi thinks fonio could become as in-demand as quinoa. And when it comes to more cooks adopting it, Bisi sees Canada’s diversity as fonio’s advantage.

“One of the things that Canada has created is the opportunity to explore other food and also come up with new cuisines. And I think fonio is a very fantastic meal that can cross over and be explored and mixed and matched with other countries to see culinary opportunities. It’s a versatile food that I believe will be used in many different ways.”

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