Use Supergrain Fonio to Make Veggie Sliders That Will Satisfy

Chef Pierre Thiam wants to put fonio on the dinner table, one recipe at a time.

Fonio Veggie Sliders
Fonio Veggie Sliders | Photo courtesy of Yolélé
Fonio Veggie Sliders | Photo courtesy of Yolélé

Summer in Senegal, for Pierre Thiam, meant spending time with family—and fonio. “I would only have fonio when I would go to the south of Senegal where my grandparents lived, and I would go there every summer vacation. I always loved it,” says the cookbook author and New York City-based chef-restaurateur. Fonio, the delicate grain of Thiam’s youth, was the foundation of the chef’s upbringing. Now, he wants fonio to go global.

“World domination,” Thiam jokes. “To me, it was a grain that needed to become world class. The fact that it was this ancient grain that has been cultivated for over 5,000 years, it’s believed to be the oldest cultivated grain in Africa. In addition to that, fonio is a grain that regenerates the soil, because it has deep roots that add nutrients.”

Once an aspiring chemist, Thiam left West Africa for the United States and landed in New York City in 1989. He meant to attend school in Ohio but instead got stuck in NY—robbed three days after he arrived, he didn’t have enough money to leave—working as a busboy at a restaurant in the West Village.

As often the story goes, he went from bussing tables to washing dishes to helping the chef practice his French in which Thiam was fluent (because imperialism) to eventually running a kitchen of his own. Dressings? Sauces? “Hey, this is chemistry!” laughs Thiam.

After years in French and Italian kitchens, Thiam opened his first restaurant, Yolélé in Brooklyn, in the early aughts as an ode to the cuisine of his roots. Now closed, Yolélé lives on as the company Thiam co-founded in 2017 with Philip Teverow, who’s helped put Thiam’s favorite gluten-free West African grain on grocery shelves. Not down to cook? You can experience fonio at Thiam’s Teranga in Harlem or Midtown.

Chef Pierre Thiam
Chef Pierre Thiam | Photo by Sara Costa
Chef Pierre Thiam | Photo by Sara Costa

Thiam’s also opened restaurants in his hometown of Dekar, Senegal, and in Nigeria, and he’s authored two cookbooks, Senegal and The Fonio Cookbook.

For the unfamiliar, fonio is light and fluffy with a slightly nutty-earthy flavor. Think of it as couscous or quinoa: a small grain that packs a huge nutritious punch.

Ultimately, Thiam wants fonio to be the next quinoa—but in the way that its becoming a global commodity benefits African farmers. “We wanted to make sure the small farmers in Africa would be the ultimate beneficiaries.” So, he built the supply chain from the ground up—even improving efficiency of the specific millery machinery to process the superfine grain. (You can find it online on Yolélé’s website or at Whole Foods, Target, and Amazon.)

Cooking fonio—a super simple, five-minute task—renders so much versatility. In salad, in salsas, as a crust…in a veggie slider. Thiam says there’s little you can’t do with fonio. The Berber people have a saying, explains Thiam, “They say, ‘Fonio is a grain that never embarrasses the cook.’”

If you can mold patties, you can make this veggie slider. Even if you haven’t had or worked with fonio before, it’s a great starter recipe. It soaks up sauces and flavors easily, so it makes a great, spice-packed binder for these vegetarian burgers.

Fonio Veggie Sliders

Yield: Serves 6-8

Ingredients:
• ½ cup Maya Kaimal Organic Everyday Dal: Black Lentil, Tomato, Cumin
• 1½ cup cooked Yolélé fonio
• 1 cup cooked, mashed sweet potato (homemade or canned)
• 2½ tablespoons flaxseed meal
• Salt and pepper
• Vegetable/canola oil for frying
• Burger buns or lettuce wraps and any toppings you like: sliced onion, tomato, pickles, sprouts, cheese, avocado, mayo, etc.

Note: You can use this prepared dal as a nice food hack or cook your own black lentils and season (cumin, ginger, garlic, coriander, paprika, sea salt, cinnamon, cardamom, cayenne, black pepper, tomato paste) to taste.

Directions:
1. In a large bowl add dal, cooked fonio, flaxseed meal, cooked sweet potato and salt and pepper. Mix until well combined, cover and let rest in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.
2. Form six patties, about 2-3 inches wide in the palm of your hand and set on a plate.
3. In a large pan, heat oil on med-high and cook patties until golden brown, 3-5 minutes on each side. Compose burgers however you like and serve!

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Rosin Saez is the senior editor of Food & Drink at Thrillist.