A Senegalese Take on Sushi With Fonio, a Superfood Ancient Grain

July 21, 2016 10:55 am Last Updated: July 21, 2016 10:55 am

Sweet Potato & Grilled Okra Fonio Sushi


The greatest thing about fonio is its versatility. I once brought some to my friend, Japanese soba master Chef Shuichi Kotani, who thought that fonio was reminiscent of its Japanese counterpart, buckwheat. (They are both ancient grains believed to be over 5,000 years old.) He ground the fonio into flour to make delicious fonio soba noodles and subsequently fell in love with it.

This recipe, in which I substitute sushi rice with whole grain, nutritional powerhouse fonio, is another nod to Japan. Light and healthy, I fill my nori-maki sushi with sweet potato and okra, some of my favorite Senegalese vegetables.

Amount Makes

4 rolls


  • 2 cups cooked fonio (recipe follows) or quinoa
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons red palm oil or vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon lime juice
  • 16 whole okra pods, trimmed (see Note)
  • 1 cup roasted mashed sweet potato
  • 4 sheets nori (seaweed)
  • 1 large ripe mango, peeled, seeded, and cut into ½-inch-thick batons or Pickled Mango (recipe follows)
  • ¼ cup thinly sliced scallions


Note: Trim the narrow points of the okra so the pods are evenly thick in the rolls.

Preheat the grill or a grill pan to hot.

With a small mortar and pestle, mash half of the cooked fonio into a paste. Combine with the rest of the fonio to make it sticky. Combine the soy sauce, oil, and lime juice in a small bowl. Stir 1 tablespoon into the fonio and set the rest aside for dipping later.

Grill the okra, turning once, for 3 to 5 minutes, until lightly charred and tender. Set aside to cool.

Lay a nori sheet on a sushi mat and evenly spread a thin layer of the fonio, leaving about 1 inch bare along the edge opposite you. Spread a few tablespoons of the mashed sweet potato along the closest edge to you. Line up a few okra, tip to tip, next to the sweet potato. Lay a few pieces of mango, tip to tip, next to the okra.

Tightly roll up the sushi mat around the nori and the filling. Slightly wet the exposed end of the nori with water and seal. Repeat the process with the remaining nori sheets and filling.

With a sharp knife, slice the rolls into small rounds. Serve immediately with the soy dipping sauce, topped with the scallions.

For the Basic Fonio:

This healthy, gluten-free grain can be used as a side in the same way you would use rice, couscous, or quinoa. These are two basic methods for steaming fonio. You can cook it in a steamer basket (the traditional way) or just in a pot on the stove. I’ve also had success cooking it in the rice cooker, if you have one (keep the ratio of fonio to water 1:1). You can always add a little bit of butter or oil to the fonio while cooking to keep the grains more separated, if you’d like. If you can’t find fonio, quinoa would make a good substitute when it is called for throughout the book.

Makes about 4 cups

  • 1 cup uncooked fonio
  • Salt

In a large bowl, wash the fonio grains by submerging in warm water, swishing the grains around with your fingers, then pouring out and replacing the water several times until it runs clear. Drain well.

Using a steamer: Place the fonio in the top of a steamer basket lined with damp cheesecloth. Set over simmering salted water, cover, and steam for about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and fluff with a fork. Drizzle a few tablespoons of salted water over the fonio and steam again until the grains are completely tender, another 5 to 10 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve.

Without a steamer: Bring 1 cup of water to a boil in a medium pot. Stir in the cleaned raw fonio and 1 tablespoon of salt, cover tightly with the lid, and turn the heat to low. Cook for about 2 minutes, until the water is just absorbed. Turn off the heat and gently fluff with a fork, making sure you fluff the bottom where it’s wetter. Cover again for another 5 to 10 minutes, until tender.

For the Pickled Mango:

Makes 3 cups

  • 2 cups water
  • 2½ cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons sea salt
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 2 whole selim pepper pods
  • 2 firm, ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted, and finely diced 

In a small pot, bring the water to a boil, then turn off the heat. Add the sugar and salt and stir to dissolve. Add the vinegar, cayenne, cloves, and selim pepper and mix well. Chill for 1 hour.

Pack the mangoes tightly into a sterilized 24-ounce jar. Pour the pickling liquid over the mango, filling the jar to the top. Cover tightly and store in the refrigerator for a few days until pickled to your liking. Use in the pastel filling, or enjoy as is or as a topping for salad.

(Reprinted from “Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl” by Pierre Thiam with Jennifer Sit, Lake Isle Press, 2015)