On Learning by Osmosis — Pittsburgh, PA

Salim opened his own deli in 1979 after studying at the University of Pittsburgh.

Salim opened his own deli in 1979 after studying at the University of Pittsburgh.

Learning is a funny thing.  While I’m pretty sure every state and the District of Columbia require kids to go to school, in many ways learning is still something we all take for granted.

Thanks to instinct and biology, I don’t remember learning how to crawl, or walk, or talk. Thanks to having a mother who was an educator, I have no memory of learning how to read.  As far as I’m concerned, I’ve always known how to do things.

In fact, my earliest memories of learning were more associated with frustration and failure than success.  At six years old, I dreaded the one-block walk to the Harlem School of the Arts for piano lessons and eventually convinced my mom to quit.

In high school and college I took Spanish classes because it was a required course.  I never really applied myself in Spanish class, but it wasn’t until I graduated that I really began to see the value in mastering a new language.

During my high-school slacker period, my mom would admonish me, “you’re not going to learn by osmosis!”  She may have been right to light a fire under me, but I do think she underestimated just how effective osmosis can be in learning.

Lots of fringe benefits come interviewing a Lebanese deli owner!

Lots of fringe benefits come with interviewing a Lebanese deli owner!

Every non-native Spanish speaker that I know has told me the best way to learn any foreign language is to live in a country where that language is spoken.  Living in a Spanish-speaking country will force you use your language skills without the safety net of English as a crutch.

In addition though, I’ve experienced first-hand just how much you can pick up by simply living in a culture and listening to how native speakers use their native language.

Turns out other skills can be learned by osmosis as well.  I was reminded of this method when I spoke with Salim El-Tahch, a former computer science student turned Middle Eastern deli and grocery owner in Pittsburgh.

Salim came to the United States in the late 1970’s as a Lebanese immigrant looking to learn English and take advantage of the burgeoning computer hardware and software industry.

Arabic was Salim’s first language and his English was basic at best.  Salim didn’t simply rely on osmosis to build his language skills, but it did prove a useful tool when he decided to drop out of college.

With his native-Lebanon engulfed in a civil war, and not wanting his family to continue using scarce resources to support his studies abroad, Salim left the University of Pittsburgh to fend for himself.

Still, there are not a lot of opportunities for recent immigrants without a college degree now; there were even fewer in 1979, in the midst of the second oil crisis.  So Salim decided that he would start his own business.


Listening to his classmates and friends, Salim discovered that there was a niche he could fill in Pittsburgh, for Lebanese and other recent immigrants from the Middle East longing for foods and spices from home.

What does a computer science major know about cooking? Turns out more than he initially thought. Salim never thought about cooking as a career; he came to the United States to pursue higher education in a technical field.

But Salim explains that after growing up watching his mom and sisters create delectable meals for the family, “Everything they were doing sunk into my head without me knowing it.  So that’s how it really started; whatever I saw at home with my mother and grandmother, that’s what really got me going.” Osmosis.

Cooking may have been a hidden talent for Salim, but building and maintaining a business was not.  Still, Salim’s Middle Eastern deli has been in its original location for the last 30 years.

Salim was able to take dishes ubiquitous in Lebanon like falafel and gyros and bring them to Pittsburgh decades before they became popular in the United States.  Sort of like molecules moving from a higher concentration membrane cell to a lower concentration cell.

He explains, “The business has changed and been remodeled quit a few times. I’ve added an extra room for seating.  And I’m still doing it.”


It seems you can learn by osmosis, but that’s not enough to be a true success.  Much like learning Spanish, immersion isn’t quite as useful if you’re not paying attention to the language and culture around or not studying to build your vocabulary.

So I guess I can call my mom and tell her that I was at least half right.

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One Response to On Learning by Osmosis — Pittsburgh, PA

  1. valerie says:

    Congratulations, Salim!! Salim makes the best food I’ve ever had!!!

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