African & American Store Brings a Taste of Africa to Madison
The African & American Store on Madison’s east side exists almost by accident. “I wanted to leave New York City to raise my family, but I didn’t know where to go,” says Mariama Diallo, co-owner of the store with her husband Mamadou Diallo. “My friend told me I should go to Wisconsin or Minnesota, that those are good places to raise a family. ‘Ok,’ I said, ‘Where’s that?’”
She was warned it was cold here, but says she didn’t care. What mattered is that her kids could be safe here, something she didn’t feel was possible in the neighborhood in which she was living in New York City. Mariama and her family like Madison, but says that when she got here she and her family noticed a lack of diversity. “We asked ourselves, ‘What are we doing here?’”
She had opened a corner store in New York City, and wanted to do the same thing in Madison. When the spot at 2750 E. Johnson St. became available, she took it. “”I wanted to open a corner store where people could come for milk, bread and eggs, but that didn’t work. Here people will drive all the way to Woodman’s for a gallon of milk. We were throwing ours away.” She decided instead to bring a bit of Africa to Madison.
Her small, two-room shop is filled with traditional African clothing, some made here and some brought from Africa. Long robes made from gleaming waxed cotton brocade hang next to shirt and skirt ensembles in bright patterns, the necklines embroidered in fine detail. High-heeled, slip-on pumps (key for quickly throwing off when the dancing starts) in vivid pink “crocodile” skin or vibrant green leather with rhinestone decoration line the walls, paired with matching purses adorned with large clasps. The front room is filled with jewelry, hair products, DVDs and souvenirs—in fact, it feels much like a market stall you might visit in Guinea, the Diallo’s home country. You can order the products online here.
The center of the store’s front room is reserved for food products. “Food is such an important way to connect people with their home. I have Africans coming in from all different countries looking for certain foods. If I can get it, I do.” Some food items such as palm oil, broken rice, peanut butter and attieke (a cassava product) are used in dishes from her home country, while others represent the diversity of African cultures in Madison. Fufu is central to Ghanaian cuisine, and millet cereal is favored by many West Africans.
TAKING A CHANCE
Recently, Slow Food Madison organized an Urban Market Forage tour at the African & American store, led by yours truly. This program offers free, guided tours of small, independently owned markets throughout Madison, including many ethnic markets.
Alyssa Henry, one of the participants on the tour, says she loves the market tours. “They make me feel more connected to our community and to other cultures,” Henry says. “I love hearing the owners’ stories and always feel so inspired by their fortitude and ambition to come to this foreign place and make a successful life for themselves and their families. It’s very humbling to see what they can so with so little.” She adds, “From a food perspective it’s like Christmas morning learning about all of the new foods and how to use them. I get inspired to try making new dishes from these far off places. The store owners enjoy having us and sharing some of their culture, as well. And I’m sure they love the shopping we all do after the tour. That’s a win-win for all of us. How often does that happen?”
Though you can wait to join the next Slow Food Urban Market Forage, you don’t have to. Next time you go by an ethnic market, stop in! Ask the owners about products that are unfamiliar, and take something new home to try. It is one of the easiest ways to enjoy the diversity in our community, and to enrich your own life.
Mariama Diallo sums it up best: “It’s not easy, having this store. Most people walk by. But you have to give something a chance.”
RECIPE: West African Peanut sauce/Groundnut stew
1 1/2–2 lbs chicken breast or thighs, chopped into 1-inch pieces
2 tbsp canola oil*
1 large onion, chopped
1 tsp ginger
1-2 clove garlic
1 14 oz can diced tomatoes*
1 tsp tomato paste*
8 oz peanut butter* (Unsweetened. Salted is okay, just reduce salt elsewhere.)
6–8 cups chicken stock* (or water with bouillon)
1 large yellow potato peeled and cubed
1/2 pound broccoli cut small
2–3 whole habanero peppers
Salt and pepper to taste*
1 tbsp hot sauce, or to taste
Heat oil in large cooking pot. Sauté onions and chicken over medium heat until chicken is mostly cooked. Press garlic clove, stir, and quickly add can of diced tomatoes. Add tomato paste, habaneros**, stock or water, peanut butter and stir. Let simmer for a few minutes (10-12) until peanut butter disperses evenly. Add potatoes other vegetables that need longer cooking times, and broccoli if you like it well-cooked (my son will eat it if it disintegrates into the sauce), otherwise add it later. Add other ingredients except for salt. Simmer on low with lid mostly on. Stir occasionally. Cook sauce for a total of about 45-60 minutes, adding water/stock if it becomes too thick. It should be the consistency of pancake batter. Add salt to taste. Cook rice according to directions.
Serve stew over hot rice. Enjoy!
*These items can be purchased at the African & American Store.
**Do not chop or cut habaneros. Cook them whole in the sauce—they do not add significant spice. If you like your food hot, remove one pepper from the pot when the sauce is cooked and pass it around on a plate. You just tap the side of the pepper with your spoon and then take a bite of your food. Habaneros are VERY hot, so only a drop of juice is needed, unless you like it HOT!
This blog was originally published in Madison Magazine March 2014.