Beet & Fonio Salad with Spicy Pickled Carrots

This salad is an exquisite combination of flavors: sweet roasted beets mingle with the spicy acidity of the pickled carrots, fragrant dill and the subtle earthiness of fonio. Recipe adapted with permission from The Fonio Cookbook, Lake Isle Press, 2019.

Beet & Fonio Salad with Spicy Pickled Carrots in blue bowl
Photo: Brittany Conerly
Active Time:
45 mins
Total Time:
1 hr 30 mins

Hundreds of nutritious fruits, vegetables and grains are indigenous to the African continent, where the cuisines of each country and region are as diverse as the crops that grow there. Our series, African Heritage Diet as Medicine: How Black Food Can Heal the Community, explores the African Heritage Diet and highlights some of the most nutrient-dense foods found on the African continent and treasured by the diaspora. This dietary pattern—introduced by Oldways—promotes health outcomes associated with longevity and increased vitality and features foods that are most likely to be available worldwide.

What Is Fonio & How to Cook It

As a kid, summer vacation visits to my grandparents always meant exciting food experiences. At their home, they ate a grain called fonio. Where I grew up, in Dakar, you couldn't find this grain—so I vividly remember the few times I encountered its nutty, earthy flavor. Many years later, as a young chef in New York City, I looked for inspiration in my food memories. Although I had gone decades without tasting fonio, it was the grain that distinctly took me back to my childhood.

If you are looking for a substitute for whole grains like quinoa and brown rice, fonio might just be it. This tiny grain, about the size of couscous, has a particularly delicate texture. In Western Africa, where it has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years, its nickname is the "grain for royalty" and it's often served to guests of honor.

An ancient grain from the millet family, fonio has a fairly neutral, if slightly nutty, flavor, which makes it quite versatile. In addition to its delicate flavor, fonio is quite nutrient-dense. Fonio is particularly rich in two amino acids—cysteine and methionine, both of which can help strengthen hair, skin and nails. It has 3 grams of protein and 1 gram of fiber per ½-cup cooked. Furthermore, fonio scores low on the glycemic index, meaning it can help stabilize—rather than spike—blood sugar, which is why, in West Africa, it is often recommended for people with diabetes.

Fonio is also a climate-friendly crop. It is drought-resistant, thriving in the arid area known as the Sahel, located south of the Sahara desert. Its deep roots help prevent soil erosion and trap carbon in the ground.

A popular adage of the Bambara (an ethnic group in native to West Africa) says that "Fonio never embarrasses the cook." Indeed, fonio is easy to cook, and it cooks up fast. Using a 1-to-2 ratio of fonio to liquid, my preferred method is to bring the water to a boil, add the fonio, stir once to mix, reduce the fire to low heat, and tightly cover the pot. Within 5 minutes, the liquid will be completely absorbed and the fonio cooked. You can then gently separate the cooked grains with the prongs of a fork, and enjoy your fonio served alongside any sauce or stew of your choice. Fonio loves its sauce, so you can be as generous as you wish; it will soak it up and still keep the grain's spongy consistency.

Come winter, I like to turn fonio into a comforting porridge. In this case, use four times as much liquid as grain, and allow it to simmer, covered, until most of the liquid is absorbed. Fonio porridge can be either sweet or savory and can be served at any time of the day. A flavorful broth will yield a moist polenta- or grits-like result, whereas if you cook it in coconut milk with chocolate, you can make a creamy pudding.

One of my favorite breakfasts is to cook fonio in some dashi (Japanese fish stock) with shiitake mushrooms and grated ginger. Once the fonio is cooked and the liquid almost absorbed, I fold a lightly whisked egg into the hot porridge, and top it with chopped scallions. If you enjoy a little heat, try cooking fonio in a spicy curry broth and serve it with fried fish for a wonderful dinner.

Another way to enjoy fonio is to mix the fluffy grains with plenty of vegetables to make a delicious salad. Simply mix it with a vinaigrette and chopped vegetables, like tomatoes, peppers, radish or cucumber to name a few, or beets and pickled carrots, like I do here. However you prepare it, cooking fonio is good for you and for the planet, so make it often and allow yourself to be creative. Because, remember, fonio never embarrasses the cook.


Spicy Pickled Carrots

  • 6 medium carrots, coarsely grated

  • 1 Scotch bonnet pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced

  • ½ medium yellow onion, finely chopped

  • 1 tablespoon salt

  • 1 cup light brown sugar

  • 2 cups rice vinegar


  • 3 ½ pounds beets, trimmed and scrubbed

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Fonio & Vinaigrette

  • ½ cup fonio

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic

  • 3 tablespoons champagne vinegar

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • ½ teaspoon ground pepper

  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

  • ¼ cup chopped fresh dill

  • 1 ½ cups unsalted roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped (Optional)


  1. To prepare carrots: Combine carrots, Scotch bonnet, onion and salt in a large bowl. Set aside for about 1 hour to draw out excess liquid.

  2. Meanwhile, prepare beets: Preheat oven to 425°F.

  3. Rub beets with 1 tablespoon oil and wrap in foil. Roast until they are easily pierced by a fork or paring knife, about 1 hour. Unwrap and let cool, then peel the beets and cut into 1/2-inch pieces.

  4. To prepare fonio & vinaigrette: Cook fonio according to package directions.

  5. Whisk mustard, garlic, vinegar, salt and pepper in a small bowl. While whisking, slowly add oil until the vinaigrette is emulsified.

  6. Drain the carrot mixture and squeeze out excess liquid. Place in a large saucepan along with sugar and vinegar. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Cover and remove from the heat. Let stand off the heat for about 15 minutes.

  7. Drain the carrots. Transfer the carrots to a large bowl. Add the beets and fonio; mix well. Drizzle with 1/2 cup dressing (reserve the remaining dressing for another use) and toss again. Sprinkle with dill and peanuts (if using) and drizzle with more oil, if desired, before serving.

To make ahead

Refrigerate carrots (in their pickling liquid), diced beets, fonio and vinaigrette separately for up to 3 days. Drain the carrots just before assembling the salad. Or make the salad in its entirety and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Toss with a bit more oil before serving if the salad seems dry.

Nutrition Facts (per serving)

241 Calories
11g Fat
34g Carbs
4g Protein
Nutrition Facts
Servings Per Recipe 8
Serving Size 1 cup
Calories 241
% Daily Value *
Total Carbohydrate 34g 12%
Dietary Fiber 6g 21%
Total Sugars 16g
Added Sugars 4g 8%
Protein 4g 8%
Total Fat 11g 14%
Saturated Fat 2g 10%
Vitamin A 7829IU 157%
Vitamin C 19mg 21%
Vitamin E 2mg 13%
Folate 157mcg 39%
Vitamin K 14mcg 12%
Sodium 490mg 21%
Calcium 71mg 5%
Iron 2mg 11%
Magnesium 46mg 11%
Potassium 669mg 14%
Zinc 1mg 9%

Nutrition information is calculated by a registered dietitian using an ingredient database but should be considered an estimate.

* Daily Values (DVs) are the recommended amounts of nutrients to consume each day. Percent Daily Value (%DV) found on nutrition labels tells you how much a serving of a particular food or recipe contributes to each of those total recommended amounts. Per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the daily value is based on a standard 2,000 calorie diet. Depending on your calorie needs or if you have a health condition, you may need more or less of particular nutrients. (For example, it’s recommended that people following a heart-healthy diet eat less sodium on a daily basis compared to those following a standard diet.)

(-) Information is not currently available for this nutrient. If you are following a special diet for medical reasons, be sure to consult with your primary care provider or a registered dietitian to better understand your personal nutrition needs.

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