Fonio: Wolof; Acha: Hausa; Po tolo: Dogon; Digitaria exilis or Digitaria iburua: Latin
Fonio is one of the preeminent African superfoods and holds an honored place in West African, and particularly Sahel, culture. Nutritionally, it rivals the Ethiopian artisanal grain tef in how good it is for you, but before we get into that, it is our pleasure to introduce fonio to you.
If you already know and love fonio, you can skip ahead to the ‘Nutritional Benefits’ section or to our delicious fonio recipes. If you don’t yet know what fonio is, you’re in for a treat. This grain is little-known outside of West Africa but, like quinoa, tef, maca and raw cacao, quickly becoming known a tasty superfood for chefs and foodies around the world.
We love to explore and enjoy local foods, at African Epicure, so if you are importing your fonio from far away, please do our African farmers a favor make sure it is Fair Trade and organic. It doesn’t make sense to us to import our food from halfway around the world when you can much more easily go local, but we do encourage you to explore and give fonio a try if you get the opportunity!
There are two types, white fonio (Digitaria exilis) and black fonio (Digitaria iburua), but both are actually a type of millet grain. White fonio is grown in the Sahel area that borders the Sahara Desert, and it does well in dry and grassy savannah as well as in richer climates. Black fonio is found in Benin, Niger, Nigeria and Togo and is generally less common (and even more nutritious). Although fonio is found all over West Africa, it is especially prized in the Fouta Djallon region of Guinea and Senegal and the Akposso region of Togo and Central Nigeria.
The fonio plant is fast-growing and can mature from seed to harvest in only 6-8 weeks. It doesn’t need a lot or water or rich soil, which makes it a good crop for soil-depleted and dryland areas that border the Sahel. After the are mature, fonio’s tiny grains must be dried and removed from their husk before they are ready to cook. Before machines did this, the fonio was dehusked in a mortar and pestle, where the grains were pounded with sand. Fonio could also be slowly toasted in a large pan until it popped out of its husk, and then pounded to separate the grain from its covering.
Traditional stories stretch back in time to tell us of fonio’s importance to our ancestors. To the Dogon of Mali, the world was greated from a grain of fonio. It is still used by many as a good offering for traditional spiritual ceremonies. Fonio is still a special food, for feasts and weddings, dowry gifts and the tables of important people.
Nutritional Benefits of Fonio
Fonio’s beloved place on West African plates is just as well, because the grain is indubitably good for us. It’s so full of protein that it even has amino acids that other grains don’t, making it a much more complete protein source. Fonio is also rich in iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc and maganese, and has more of these nutrients, serving-per-serving, than other grains. It’s also very high in fiber, which makes it a good carbohydrate as it releases its sugar slowly into the blood stream, making for consistent, high-quality energy over a longer period of time.
Compare this with the quick sugar high and subsequent cravings you get from white bread or white rice, and fonio is a much better choice all around. Are you convinced yet?