The neighborhood clustered around 116th street in West Harlem is known by many as Le Petit Sénégal, or Little Senegal. And with good reason. It was—as Mary, the proprietor of Adja Khady Food Distributor, notes—"built by the African community."
Mary, who is herself Senegalese, has lived in the neighborhood since moving to New York in the mid-1990s. She got her start in business selling hats. "A lot of African people start their business selling hats, outside. That is how I started my business." A few years later, she moved indoors, opening a brick-and-mortar beauty supply store on 116th. In 2005, she opened Adja Khady Food Distributor next door.
Adja Khady Food Distributor is a family affair. Mary's husband and sisters are part of the team, and the business itself is named for her mother, whom she cares for very much. "My mother was a very big cooker!" she exclaimed, but that's not why she opened a food distribution business. There clearly was a need in her community: "I see a lot of African people, especially here on 116th," Mary noted.
In response to this community, Adja Khady specializes in West African food imports, with a focus on Senegal. "We are Senegalese, and we know the products. We do a little bit for Mali because it is close to Senegal—it's also West African food."
Today, some eight years later, the retail store on 116th pales in comparison to her full-scale wholesale food distribution company. Mary proudly pointed to a box of ground peanuts, emblazoned with her own brand name. "We do wholesale, all over America, we send merchandise all over the states. You can find Adja Khady products in California, Ohio, Michigan, in Altanta, Georgia, in North Carolina."
Still, Mary's store is well worth a visit. It's but two aisles, but you'll be sure to find all the key Senegalese ingredients. Peanuts, a staple in Senegalese cuisine, are well represented: shelled, roasted, and ground. There are several grains, both whole and ground, as well as incendiary hot peppers, yellow tubs of seasoning (in tomato and regular), and palm oil and ghee for cooking. Mary packages her own bagfuls of dried herbs for tea, and carries as well an extensive collection of branches, also for tea. ("When you are tired, you soak it, and drink it like tea.")
Tiny plastic bags enclose the strong-smelling sumbala, fermented seeds that figure widely in Senegalese dishes. There's dried fruits that you eat like candy, jars of homemade hot pepper and peanut sauces to accompany cooked grains, and bottles of thick, golden ginger syrup for making super spicy, super gingery soda at home. (Mary suggested mixing one part syrup with two parts plain water. I'd suggested more one part syrup to four or five parts water, and sparkling water, if you have it on hand.)
In the freezer you'll find large pieces of dried fish for making stews, tied up in plastic bags, much like you'd find at a corner store in Dakar. There are, too, some French hold-overs: packets of Le Vainqueur! sugar, and Nido powdered milk.
I asked Mary what she likes to make most for dinner, and she was quick to respond: "couscous!" She pulled a box of Adja Khady brand grains off the shelf. "It's millet—we grind it, make it into powder. Then we add a little water and move our hands through it to make it little balls. Then we steam it. And then we make a sauce. It can be with meat, or with fish, or tomato—sometimes it's white with no tomatoes—or with peanut butter!" At Adja Khady Food Distributor you'll find two kinds of ready to eat couscous, another Senegalese staple. There's the kind Mary would make, and the slightly bigger version, which you boil.
Adja Khady Food Distributor
243 West 116th Street, New York, NY 10026 (map)