“As a young chef in New York, I realized that West Africa was not in the so-called food capital of the world,” he said. “Take a country like Nigeria, it has over 200 languages, so you can imagine how rich the culture is. Food is a culture and this is how we approach food in West Africa.”
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When asked about the cultural link between different regions and beyond, Thiam pointed out how the recipes travel and are subject to many different interpretations.
“For example, you see okra stew with plenty of seafood, sometimes with meat mixed in the same recipe,” he said. “But (in Senegal) there is always palm oil. And by the way, it became known as gumbo in New Orleans. If you go to Bahia in Brazil, you will see the West African cuisine in all its richness.
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“But it’s the cuisine that transcends borders and really tells a different story of West Africa. A story of decolonization that doesn’t believe in the borders imposed on us. You see Jollof in Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Sierra Leone. And you see a version of jollof in jambalaya. That shows you how resilient this food is.”
Yolélé’s signature product is fonio, a small, nutritious grain. It was grown by sub-Saharan small farmers and used in countless ways.
“The fonio is very important because it’s not a grain it’s just a nutritional powerhouse, but gluten-free,” said Thiam. “It is also a grain that grows in poor soil, requires very little water and restores the soil because it has deep roots. It was important for me to consider the economic impact of creating opportunities among the poorest farmers and communities in the sub-Saharan region.”
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Thiam is also the author of “The Fonio Cookbook” (Lake Isle Press, $24.95), which includes a recipe for beer made with fonio. And most recently Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewing has created Yolélé Fonio White Beer, a craft beer brewed with fonio.
“We understand how culture and especially food is a big bridge,” Thiam said. “I think it’s a powerful tool if we take the time to look at it as a way to reconnect with who we truly are. Food is evolution, but always inspired by the past.”
These recipes celebrate West African food ways, from the classic peanut soup to cassava dumplings called fufu, to the ancient gluten-free grain fonio that can be an ingredient in everything from beer to chocolate cake.
This West African-inspired recipe may be best remembered as a classic from “The Moosewood Cookbook.” 1970’s. Served with fonio and cassava meatballs, it makes a hearty meal for an autumn or winter evening.
Made from fonio, a grain native to West Africa, these excellent African ravioli are huge and are known by many different names in Nigeria and Congo, including fufu. Search for Fonio at Sevananda Natural Foods Market as well as Whole Foods Markets or buy online from Amazon or African food market yolele.com.
Reprinted with permission from “The Fonio Cookbook” by Pierre Thiam (Lake Isle Press, $24.95).
Jollof Rice with Roasted Shrimp and Okra
Jollof rice is a West African dish that is cooked with a variety of proteins, including seafood, lamb, and chicken. This version with shrimp and okra has elements of both okra and jambalaya.
Fonio Chocolate Cake with Raspberries
With coconut oil and cocoa, this delicious fonio cake tastes a lot like a Mounds bar. It will serve eight or more and will keep in the refrigerator in a covered container for up to a week.
Adapted from “The Fonio Cookbook” by Pierre Thiam (Lake Isle Press, $24.95) and reprinted with permission.