Asian grocery gets business boost from African food

Monday, June 11, 2012 | 3:45 p.m. CDT; updated 5:35 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 25, 2012
Chong's Oriental Market will be remodeled over the summer to make space for an even larger selection of African ingredients and comfort foods, as well as other ethnic foods.

COLUMBIA -- Back in Ghana, fufu is pounded fresh daily. The stickier cousin of mashed potatoes, it's made from boiled plantains and cassava thwacked to a pulp with a wooden mortar and pestle. 

Here in Columbia, it comes in a small blue box. 

Elijah Agyapong, a doctoral student at MU from Techiman, Ghana, likes to make fufu at home to eat with homemade goat soup. He also likes to fry sweet ripe plantains for Red-Red, another Ghanaian dish of spicy black-eyed peas, sardines and a dollop of red palm oil. 

Agyapong gets these key ingredients at Chong's Oriental Market. 

More African foods have been squeezed onto the shelves of Chong’s since last fall, when Daewun Sin came home to help out the family business.

In April, his mother, the founder of Chong’s, died, and Sin became manager. The store will be remodeled over the summer to make space for an even larger selection of African staples and comfort foods, as well as other ethnic foods.

Sin’s parents came from Korea and opened the store in 1990, selling mostly Asian foods, with only a few African items.

Last year, customers from Nigeria, Ghana and Tanzania approached the counter with requests and Sin said he noticed an opportunity for greater business.

“I started slowly adding items each week,” Sin said.

He researched common West African ingredients and watched fufu cooking videos online. About 10 percent of the store’s business comes from its African products now.

The produce section features boxes of yam and cassava alongside scallions and Chinese eggplant. A cooler that chills five brands of tofu also preserves bags of smoked catfish and not one, but two kinds of kenkey, fermented cornmeal from Ghana.

One center aisle is laden with West African ingredients and spices. Bright red and orange palm oil comes in three sizes, up to one gallon. The newest additions are baggies of crinkly dried ugu leaves, from a type of pumpkin, for Nigerian cuisine.

Agyapong said he likes to eat at home rather than go out so he can control his diet. The U.S. obesity epidemic concerns him — and his mother.

“When I was coming here, I quite remember, she told me, ‘Don’t grow fat.’”

Besides the new supplies, Chong's is adjusting in other ways. Sin's sister, Michelle Chong, used to take naps in the back of the store as a child, while her mother worked the front. Today Michelle wants to digitize the store's finances.

“We’re running it the way my parents ran it, and need an upgrade,” she said.

A late July renovation will add higher shelves, more refrigeration and new flooring. Sin said he expects the new space will hold different varieties of plantain chips, beans and flours. 

Joseph Nylander, originally from Sierra Leone, drove from Jefferson City regularly for 16 years to buy groceries at Chong’s.

One day last week, his grocery bag was filled with two frozen red snappers, Maggi seasoning cubes, cassava, plantains and a jar of Ovaltine drink mix.

“We enjoy American food, but we enjoy our home food better,” he said.

"It's like you go back home when we eat those foods."

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Louis Schneebaum June 12, 2012 | 12:17 a.m.

Now I hope someone will open a restaurant with some West African cuisine!

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