Pierre Thiam came to America from his native Senegal to study physics in Ohio, but a stop in New York to see a friend turned into a career in the world of food. He’s appeared on the Iron Chef, cooked for presidents and kings, and has restaurants on two continents. He used to smuggle his favorite African foods back to America in his suitcase, but now he’s the head of a global importing company.
Thiam started Yolélé, which translates to “let the good times roll” in the Wolof language, to bring the foods of West Africa to the rest of the world. Working with small, mostly women-owned farms that grow the ancient grain fonio, he and his partner Phil Teverow help with processing and marketing to provide a reliable income. Fonio also offers a climate-friendly crop for the Sahel, the arid region between the Sahara desert and tropical rainforests. It’s one of the world’s most vulnerable regions and growing drought-resistant fonio can help slow desertification.
The Dogon People of Mali call fonio “the Seed of the Universe,” and fonio grains have been found in Egyptian pyramids. West Africans cook it for breakfast porridge, cover it with peanut sauce, and mix it with one pot stews of meat and vegetables.
A relative newcomer to American tables, fonio has been grown in Africa for more than 5,000 years. The light, fluffy grain with a nutty flavor cooks in a few minutes, unusual for a whole grain packed with complex carbohydrates, an array of vitamins, and protein. It adds substance to this cabbage salad with a zingy, cilantro-date dressing inspired by Samin Nosrat’s adaptation of a chutney from chef and anthropologist Niloufer Ichaporia King’s landmark cookbook, “My Bombay Kitchen.” For fonio recipes, cultural importance, and information about new products, sign up for the Yolélé newsletter.