Sola Ajao of Randolph, 58, developed a passion for her native Nigerian cuisine at an early age. Her mom taught her to make the jollof rice and egusi soup she now considers her specialties.
But when she immigrated to the United States 26 years ago, Ajao struggled to find Cameroon pepper, Ducros curry powder, and other ingredients she needed to make the foods that were staples back home.
“Since then, I’ve thought that one day, I will open my own store,” Ajao said.
Now she has. Destiny African Market & Variety Store, which opened in November in Randolph, is one of a relatively small number of grocery stores specializing in Afro-Caribbean foods in Greater Boston. It offers fresh, frozen, and packaged goods from Africa, as well as clothing, beauty products, and catering services.
In building her business, Ajao is braving a vicious pandemic and related supply chain shortages. She’s also pushing back against misconceived notions of West African cuisine.
Ajao, in an interview in which she spoke partly in English and partly in Yoruba, with her daughter interpreting, said she hopes the store can appeal to people who want to explore African culture in an authentic, fun, and enjoyable way.
“Our number one priority is to make our customers happy,” Ajao said.
Godwin Nnanna, president of the Nigerian American Multi-Service Association, said the number of West African markets in Boston has grown in recent years, to about a half dozen scattered across Hyde Park, Dorchester, Roslindale, and Roxbury. But few exist outside the city.
He said a number of Nigerians, especially in Hyde Park and Dorchester, sell African foods out of their homes. Access to capital, complex bureaucracy, and a perceived lack of interest in West African foods can be obstacles to opening brick-and-mortar stores, he said.
Randolph may be an ideal spot for a suburban Afro-Caribbean emporium; it’s long been a top choice for people of color and immigrants looking to move from Boston to the suburbs. According to a 2019 American Community Survey, about 45 percent of Randolph’s population is Black, and 9.3 percent of its foreign-born population hails from West Africa.
The market, housed in a small building on South Main Street, is bright with vivid reds, yellows, and greens and lively Afrobeats fill the air. Large, colorful portraits of Ajao’s family tower over the front counter.
Showing a visitor around on a recent morning, Ajao pointed to some of her products. Packaged snails, she said, can be sauteed with onions, peppers, and spices to make a spicy red stew. Dried and ground egusi seeds are used to thicken soups and stews. A moin moin mixture contains the ingredients needed to whip up a savory, spicy steamed bean pudding.
She’s especially proud of stocking rarities like Indomie, an Indonesian noodle brand that’s popular in Nigeria, and ofada rice, rice grown in southwest Nigeria with a distinct smell. Ajao also sells frozen meats from local butchers, rather than relying on preservative-laden meats often found in American supermarkets.
Supply chain shortages caused by the pandemic have made keeping her shelves stocked a challenge. Speaking in Yoruba with a customer, she explained she’d run out of frozen pap, a maize flour porridge, and would call her as soon as it was restocked.
Ajao said that some Americans she’s encountered have not been as receptive to the products she sells.
People who aren’t familiar with African dishes, Ajao said, often say things like, “‘That food looks nasty. It doesn’t look appealing.”
This hesitance, experts say, has complex roots. Ozoz Sokoh, an Ontario-based, Nigerian food anthropologist, said anti-Black racism has left West African cuisine undervalued in the United States. She said slights like “primitive,” “ethnic,” and “difficult to find” have discouraged Westerners from trying West African foods. Also, in many African nations, colonization has replaced traditional African dishes with Western cuisine, weakening cultural roots.
“Foods with Black associations are typically dismissed, rejected, and minimized, based on thoughts of them being associated with slavery, poverty, and Black people,” Sokoh said. “The food itself has become racialized.”
And all of these factors convey to Black people that their foods “aren’t good enough,” Sokoh said.
But in the last few years, Ajao has seen indications that African Americans are beginning to explore West African cuisines. Before that, her clients were almost exclusively Nigerian.
Frederick Douglass Opie, a professor of history and foodways at Babson College, said West African food entrepreneurs can highlight commonalities with African American cuisines from the American South.
Both Jambalaya and jollof rice, for example, combine rice, meats, and vegetables in a pot. Yams and sweet potatoes are a focal point of West African and African American soul food, respectively. Cooked greens, like ugu leaves and mustard greens, are also found in both cuisines.
“There’s more in common than there are things different,” Opie said.
But last year, a viral TikTok fufu challenge, in which users film their reactions to trying fufu, a tart, starchy dough, and egusi soup, thickened with ground melon seeds, introduced many customers outside of the African diaspora to West African cuisine. New clients flooded Ajao with food orders, and some of these customers have since visited the store to cook their own dishes.
With her daughter interpreting, Ajao said social media trends like the fufu challenge helped spread awareness about the richness of her native cuisine and, in turn, helped her to open the market. Even two years ago, she said, it would have been more difficult to attract customers.
For every 10 Nigerian customers that flock into her store, Ajao said, she might see one or two non-Black customers. Ajao beamed as she recalled helping an American couple locate ingredients for an egusi soup recipe.
“We all need to learn about more cultures, it’s very important to us,” Ajao said.
Ajao has been trying to use social media to teach the broader community about her products, making culinary connections and answering questions as she goes. One post describes chin chin as “donut but crunchy.” Another post includes graphics of dishes commonly served during a Nigerian Thanksgiving meal.
Chinanu Okoli of Randolph, 18, learned about the store through Instagram and said he was moved by Ajao’s attempts to make customers feel welcome.
He said he attended the store’s grand opening last month and left with spicy plantain chips, chin chin, and a catering box including the best puff-puff, deep-fried dough similar to doughnut holes, that he’d eaten in years.
“I just felt the warmth [when I entered the store],” Okoli said. “They’re really putting in effort to make people feel good.”
Bilikis Ibidokun of Brockton, 30, emigrated from Nigeria five years ago and has made the 20-minute drive to Destiny a few times in the past weeks. She said she was happy to find ugu leaves, similar to kale, periwinkle, and smoked fish to cook for her son, 4, and daughter, 1, for the first time.
“We want our kids to be able to understand our food,” Ibidokun said. “It’s critical for us to have more stores like this in our reach, so we don’t have to go far away just to get it.”