African cuisine isn't widely understood in Chicago, partly because there are vast differences between the more popular Ethiopian menus and the lesser-known Senegalese and Rwandan dishes. But a store in Uptown offers enough imported African ingredients to start your own restaurant.
Before there were food trucks in Chicago, there were African restaurateurs selling tripe and jollof rice out of small vans near the Lakeshore and Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Now, Ethiopian restaurants get more attention for their eat-with-your-hands approach and more familiar stews. But there are several other African nations -- and to cook their food, you have to head to uptown for inspiration.
The wide aisles and exotic produce make it look like any other ethnic grocery store, but the real secret at the Old World Market in Uptown is its impressive selection of Caribbean and African ingredients and imported items. Claire Mukundente should know. The Rwandan native has lived in Chicago for more than a decade, and says walking the aisles here reminds her of home.
"I love the market because I can find everything we need from Africa; any food we use from Africa we can find in this store," Mukundente said.
That means bottles of palm oil for cooking and yams in all shapes and sizes. Plantains - both unripe green or softer yellow - plus lots of cassava.
"Cassava, cassava leaves, cassava flour, some vegetables like spinach from back home; sometimes it tastes different than here, because sometimes it's kind of organic," she said.
Fufu is used to make soft, doughy dumplings, while other featured starches include the three "Y"s - yuca, yautia and yampi. An impressive wall of rice from around the world dwarfs most shoppers, and Mukundente says even among her friends from back home, the assortment of familiar names and products offers a gentle reminder of country she left long ago.
"I'm glad I can find everything I want here," said Mukundente. Old World Market
5129 N. Broadway
Yassa African Restaurant
716 E. 79th St