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Reclaiming the Grain Bowl

Black chefs are giving the sad-desk-lunch staple a distinct culinary identity

Teranga’s “Yassa, Yassa” bowl
Monica Burton is the deputy editor of

At Teranga, Le Creuset dishes in primary colors hold items ready to be scooped into compostable bowls for a line of waiting customers. There’s fonio, a grain lauded for being nutritious and gluten-free, along with couscous and rice; vegetarian sides, like a beet salad and roasted plantains; and, naturally, a choice of protein, including salmon and chicken. The result is a fast-casual grain bowl, to be sure. But Teranga is unlike any other fast-casual, bowl-serving restaurant, not least because on a late Sunday afternoon it’s livelier than any Dig Inn has ever been.

Teranga, located inside the African Center in Harlem, is the newest restaurant from Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam. Here, pan-African grains, and grain bowls piled with African ingredients, are the sole focus. And Thiam isn’t the only chef to put a spotlight on grains. In Seattle, Edouardo Jordan opened Lucinda Grain Bar in December, which highlights grains in its food and in its booze. JJ Johnson, of pan-African restaurant Henry, has plans to open his own globally inspired fast-casual, grain-bowl restaurant in the coming months.

Grain bowls are nothing new in American restaurants. The bowls — some combination of grain, vegetable, and protein — have long been staples at health-food restaurants. In the early part of this decade, the dish went mainstream as chefs like Jessica Koslow of Sqirl in LA and Alissa Wagner of Dimes in New York City put versions of the dish on their restaurant menus. They’re entirely customizable, making them perfect for fast-casual restaurants like Sweetgreen, Dig Inn, and countless other riffs on the two. Still, these bowls prioritized health, and with photogenic ingredients like watermelon radish and artfully arranged slices of avocado, they took off among the wellness influencer set, too. By 2017, “Buddha bowls” and the like were all over Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards; Sweetgreen would turn the trend into a startup with a $1 billion valuation in 2018.

Today, the announcement of a new grain-bowl restaurant may conjure images of sad desk lunches, but Thiam and Jordan aren’t serving the grain bowls of stock photos: They’re taking grains and rooting them in history. Although the grains’ inherent wholesomeness remains, here, they’re presented with distinct culinary identities.

“Teranga isn’t following a trend,” says Thiam. “We’re bringing a food culture.” For the chef, Teranga all started with a single grain. Thiam’s company Yolélé is dedicated to promoting fonio, a West African grain high in amino acids. He had been thinking about opening a fast-casual concept that would highlight the grain when the Africa Center approached him about doing the food for its upcoming space. Now, Teranga is introducing New Yorkers to fonio and other African dishes from across the continent, like fufu (a starchy dough; at Teranga it’s made with red palm oil and plantains), ndambe (black-eyed pea and sweet potato stew), and kelewele (spiced fried plantains), all presented in a familiar format atop bowls of grains.

“The grain bowl is an ancient way of eating,” Thiam says. “I grew up in Senegal where we literally eat every day in a bowl where you have the grain and you have the vegetable and the protein in the center.” Grains, he adds, are the basis for the diet of millions of people: As an ambassador of sorts for fonio, he’s even given a TED Talk on the grain’s potential to fight hunger and revitalize African communities. It’s only the fast-casual format — complete with “gluten-free” menu designations and grab-and-go drinks in branded bottles (like Senegalese bouye and bissap, made from baobab and the roselle of the hibiscus plant, respectively) — that’s new.

Teranga’s “The Jollof” bowl with fonio, kelewele, black-eyed pea salad, and salmon.

On the other side of the country, Jordan ruminated on similar ideas when conceiving of Lucinda Grain Bar, which opened in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood in December 2018. “Ancient grains fed some of the first civilizations,” he says. “That’s what I thought about: How many Natives used the grains of the land and being able to present that.”

Jordan won two James Beard Awards last year: Best Chef: Northwest for Salare and Best New Restaurant for his Southern restaurant, Junebaby. For his next restaurant, he wanted a space that would complement the first two by offering a more casual option, as well as serve as a production kitchen for his pastry team. Grains made practical sense.

“Washington state and the Pacific Northwest is a beautiful grain belt,” Jordan says. “There’s been so many farmers dropping grains off at the doors of the restaurants where I’ve worked and the restaurants I own now.” As he learned more about the grains of the region, he approached his pastry team about incorporating whole grains into the pastry at Junebaby and Salare. If he were telling his pastry team to be more thoughtful about grains, he thought, he should work grains into the savory side of his restaurants, too. So why not open an entire restaurant dedicated to the region’s grain bounty? “It came about very organically,” Jordan says. While the flavors at Lucinda Grain Bar now take inspiration from around the world, Jordan sees the category as integral to African-American culinary history. “Even from before stepping on American soil, we had a grain-based, vegetable-based diet,” he says.

Lucinda Grain Bar isn’t fast casual. The full-service restaurant dishes out ceramic bowls of freekeh with lamb shoulder, Brussels sprouts, delicata squash, and puy lentils, and purple barley with calamari, cranberry beans, and kimchi. For dessert, there’s a porridge with einkorn ice cream. Some of the grains come from local farmers, meaning Jordan might be the first to serve small-batch grains his customers have never tasted.

“We’re stretching the boundaries of what people think about grain bowls,” Jordan says. “What I’m bringing back is history, basically. I’m just thinking about my son and wanting to feed him healthy food so that can be part of his diet and that can be part of his thought process.”

As the recent popularity of restaurant congee attests, bowls of grains are having a moment. But both these chefs insist that they’re not following a trend, and indeed Teranga and Lucinda Grain Bar buck the grain-bowl trends of years ago with new flavors, considered presentations, and a focus on education. However, it’s not merely coincidence that has led to a new wave of restaurants that draw connections to the ingredient’s prominent place in the world’s culinary history, and to African foodways specifically. “A lot of chefs of color are now able to present the foods of our ancestors, and we’re excited about that,” says Jordan. “We’re learning our history, we’re accepting our history, and we’re presenting our history.”

Thiam calls African food the “last frontier” for American restaurants, but he believes that it’s time for it to achieve the same cultural saturation as other world cuisines. “People are more open to discovering these flavors, especially when they get in there and discover it’s not so different from what they know,” he says. And especially when it’s presented in the form of the familiar, unintimidating grain bowl.

Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor.
Editor: Erin DeJesus