Think of food as a common language uniting people, according to Chef Pierre Thiam whose talk at MOFAD challenged the audience to view traditional African cuisine as a culturally multifaceted entity of several overlapping influences and roots that trace back millennia. Kicking off with a cooking demonstration, Chef Thiam began with the ancient grain fonio from his native Senegal. Described as the most nutritious grain ever heard of, Thiam’s presentation included an excerpt from a National Geographic documentary, which featured a women’s coop that organizes the grain’s cultivation and processing in Senegal. As per Chef Thiam, this grain is grown in a remote, poor area of Senegal that has largely been affected by the current refugee crisis. Fonio also has tremendous economic importance and could be the perfect cash crop for an impoverished people, thanks to its array of nutrients and levels of amino acids not present in other popular grains, like rice and quinoa.
Ironically, both the effects of colonization and overall demand have downgraded fonio’s benefits. To this day, the grain still remains elusive in the big cities of Senegal. Having been cultivated for the past 5,000 years, the interest in fonio dropped during the French colonization of West Africa, after which Africans largely stopped growing fonio in favor of cash crops like peanuts that the French deemed more important. Nevertheless, remote arid areas of West Africa continued to cultivate fonio, as it requires little water, poor soil, and no pesticides.
Fonio, which is sandy and grainy in texture, has a somewhat nuttier flavor than couscous and is easy to cook. The chef shared a Malian saying that “Fonio never embarrasses the cook.” Chef Thiam steamed it in a cheesecloth for fifteen minutes, warning that it is a generous grain and will quadruple in size after being cooked. The versatility of this gluten-free grain allows it to go well with salads, stews, or even be ground down flour.
While being treated to the fragrant cooking of Chef Thiam’s traditional sauce of onions, tomato paste, peanut butter, and seasonings, he shared stories and history of Senegal, a country whose food and cooking is so richly embedded in the culture and everyday life. He described the “soundtrack of cooking in Africa,” moving to the beat of the mortar and pestle pounding away, as he added peanut butter to his sauce. The chef explained some of his secret ingredients in Senegalese cooking, like the spice dawa dawa that gets its strong smell from the fermented locust bean and can be added to flavor his spicy salsa, or “confiture de piment,” that accompanies most Senegalese dishes.
His newest cookbook Senegal is also jam-packed with stories Thiam has collected from his beloved homeland that illustrate his recipes through his homeland’s history and traditions, allowing readers to learn more about the country’s past and important issues of today. Recipes from the cookbook are of traditional Senegalese cooking with influences from the baguettes of the French, the Portuguese pastel, and spring rolls from Vietnam, cultural dishes Thiam suggested that were always embraced by the food Senegalese mothers cooked.
He also shares the connections that American cooking has to Senegal that dates back to the slave trade. What is known today as Carolina rice has its origins from from West Africa and later brought to the Americas on slave ships, along with other Southern cooking staples such as sweet potatoes and okra. As those familiar with Louisiana gumbo might be surprised to know, the African word gumbo means okra, an essential ingredient in some versions of the Southern dish.
Those interested in trying out fonio for themselves will be pleased to know that they will be able to find it in the Harlem Whole Foods as early as this summer, and that many African grocery stores in Harlem and the Bronx already have the West African grain.
For information on upcoming events, please visit MOFAD.