Depending on which part of Africa you're from, American yams are not the same as African yams, chicken from the local grocery doesn't have a "hard" enough consistency, and the chocolate at the check-out rack might be too soft.
In short, nothing tastes quite right.
Sani Musah, a Ghana native, loves yams, but if he can help it, he would prefer not to buy them from an American grocery store. "Certain ingredients, you can only find in an African food shop," he said.
That's why in February, Mr. Musah brought a little bit of Africa to Brookline Boulevard in Brookline with his new store, Daree Salam African Market.
Daree Salam offers a variety of basic foods necessary in African cooking, and is still developing in terms of what it stocks and the different African countries it can cater to. "You have Liberia, you have Nigeria, you have Ghana, [and] they all have different tastes sometimes so you're trying to cover all of them," he said.
He handpicks all of his products from Gold Coast Trading Co. in New York City, and so far, he has managed to cover a number of countries. Among the colorful cans and packages lining the shelves in his store are the packs of stockfish mainly used by Nigerians; millet used in Guinea, Sudan and Ghana to make porridge; and cocoyam fufu flour that Cameroonians love. In one of the freezers, there are cassava leaves popular in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The store also is rich in items that are familiar across borders. Rice, beans, seasonings, smoked fish, goat meat, yams, corn flour, plantains, palm oil, corn oil and beverages such as Milo and Ovaltine are foods that many Africans have in common.
"People from Sudan, people from Somalia, they might have the same products, but they have a different way of using it," Mr. Musah said.
While Daree Salam is sure to be popular with members of the African community, non-African shoppers like exploring the store, learning about how the ingredients are used and trying recipes out for themselves. "They want to see the difference, and I help them to know what each item is used for," he said. "Sometimes somebody hears 'yams,' and they think it's regular yams, but meanwhile I show them, 'Here's the yam and here's how you cook with it.'"
When Brookline resident Keith Knecht stepped into Daree Salam for the first time, he didn't know what to expect or what Mr. Musah was selling. After getting a tour of the store and an explanation of the different products, he bought plantain fufu flour and a few other items to try out African cooking.
He and his wife made their first African dish of fufu, which Mr. Knecht describes as "a somewhat sweet dough," and a West African stew.
"We're typical middle-aged whites from northern European stock; if we like African food, I think others could come around to giving it a try in their kitchens," he said in an email.
Shoppers might be familiar with some of the items in the store, but there are subtle differences in taste or the way they are prepared.
On a skinny shelf of goodies near the register are chocolates imported from Ghana, but unlike the soft chocolates many people are used to sinking their teeth into, this one is produced to be hard and slightly crunchy. "We live in a temperate climate so when the weather is hot, you can't make a liquid chocolate. You can't make it too soft, or it's going to melt."
Mr. Musah also recalls when he advertised "hard chicken" in the window and a lot of curious shoppers came in to ask about it. Many Africans find that compared to their homegrown chicken, which is harder and good for making soups, foreign chicken is too soft, he explained.
Mr. Musah has a lot of knowledge to share about his products. He knows what ingredients go well together. He knows that his pure shea butter is good for hair and feet and also for cooking. He knows that the natural cocoa he sells is good for high blood pressure, his oat fufu is excellent for managing weight and the plantains in the back of the store are good for diabetes. He also knows that food might be the one link people have to home.
"Food links you to your cultural background and culture is the way we live. Even the way we eat can tell the culture we're coming from," he said. "After opening this shop, people ask [me] for things that [I've] never thought of, but looking at it, that's what they use and that's what [I] have to provide them with."
That the store even exists is something Mr. Musah never envisioned when he moved to the United States in 2005. He chose to settle in Pittsburgh because the laid-back atmosphere reminded him of home. While he had graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in Ghana and went on to attend ITT Technical Institute in Pittsburgh, it still didn't feel like enough.
He gave DeVry University a try and while he was learning about businesses and marketing, it briefly crossed his mind that he could open his own business. Even after he graduated in 2010, he only played with this idea. Finally, he decided to just go with it in February.
"I realized that the African community is growing, so [I thought] 'Let me start something that could benefit them,' " he said.
He plans to expand his store's offerings. He already has a rack of traditional dresses and jewelry, but wants to add more clothing to the collection. He also plans to use the store as a sort of cultural hub for people.
"What I'm thinking of this is to make it go beyond a regular store, to open people's eyes to a different world, like what they need to know about, giving them all the information and connecting them." One way he plans to do this is by holding cooking demonstrations in the store and giving people an authentic taste of Africa.
Daree Salam African Market is at 944 Brookline Blvd. It is open from 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The phone is 412-343-2012.
OTHER AFRICAN FOOD RESOURCES
Several Pittsburgh sources of African food have closed, including Abay Ethiopian Cuisine in East Liberty last month. International Market Ltd. in Brentwood is closing as the owner is off to Point Park University. But, there are several places where you can get tastes of Africa.
Blemahdoo's African Market
221 8th Ave, Homestead, PA 15120
Marima African Store
1209 Brownsville Road
Global Food Market
132 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty (15206)
10 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 1-6 p.m. Sun.
International Market Limited
13 Dewalt, Ave, PA 15210
10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon-Sat., closed Sun.
815 Brookline Blvd., Brookline (15226)
11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tues-Fri., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sat., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sun.
Lydiah's Coffee House
200 Grant St., Downtown (15219)
7 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sat.
Kitoko Chargois: email@example.com or 412-263-1088.