Ethnic markets reflect Laurel's 'hybrid diversity'

Slowly, steadily, the Laurel area is being transformed into a global grocery village. Along with a rich array of eateries featuring international flavors, the local landscape is now a destination for more exotic supermarkets whose shelves brim with hard-to-find items gleaned from farmers' fields in Central and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

Many immigrants arriving in Laurel bring with them fatter paychecks and more disposable income, said Karl Brendle, who oversees the city's Community Planning and Business Services Department.

Brendle cited the Wellington development as a good example. Residents there might have "the Range Rover in the driveway, and an active lifestyle and discerning shopping and dining habits," he said.

Wealthier newcomers bled into a Laurel mosaic with immigrants who are less wealthy, creating what Brendle calls a "hybrid diversity," something he said is typical in the Baltimore/Washington corridor.

The city has expanded its passport issuance days, Brendle said, to accommodate a growing demand for passports by city residents traveling home to their native countries.

"Our world becomes smaller each year," he said.

From Mexico to Israel

Laurel is now home to outlets that regularly stock favorites like sausage from Guatemala and yams from Ghana, attracting shoppers who live in Laurel and others from the surrounding area. But the most dominant new markets in Laurel are those that offer groceries with a Latin beat. At the El Toro Supermarket on Laurel-Bowie Road, customers can pick up everything from fresh fajita meat and chicken necks to bags of red beans from El Salvador and cream from Guatemala, Honduras or Mexico. Bright yellow jerseys sporting the word "Brasil" dangle on hangers.

Standing shoulder to shoulder near the snack bar, Mirna Rivera and her daughter, Brenda, waited for their pupusas — considered the national dish of El Salvador.

"There's a lot of international food here," said Brenda, a student at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. "This is the first time I've tried pupusas here," she said, as the clerk carefully tucked three of the meat, cheese and bean medleys into a Styrofoam box.

Mirna Rivera, who bakes and cooks at an eatery at Laurel Park race track, said she's noticed an uptick in the number of Hispanic residents in Laurel.

"There are a lot of Mexicans now, and a lot of them work at the race track," she said. Along with the wave of new immigrants comes restaurants that dish comfort food from back home. Still, she acknowledged, "the food you make at home is always better."

One of Laurel's older ethnic markets, Aladdin Food Market on Main Street, caters to customers whose tastes lean more toward the cuisines of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, from Italy to Israel and beyond.

Nadia Obeid, who lives in Odenton and is a native of Palestine, said she visits the store monthly and is especially interested in picking up Kalamata olives from Greece, hookahs — glass smoking devices — good bread and fava beans.

"It's a nice place to shop," Obeid.  "I find all the stuff I need here."

Store manager Mary Khoury, like Obeid, is originally from Palestine. The business, Khoury noted, has been open in the same location for 13 or 14 years, adding that sales are strong, with plenty of repeat customers. Many of her regulars come from College Park, Beltsville and Ellicott City, where they fill their baskets with Greek, French, Egyptian and Bulgarian cheeses, pickled eggplant and Jordan almonds.

Khoury said the store's owner operates another ethnic grocery store, Thomas Market, in Wheaton. She said she's "hopeful" that new customers will discover the store once the new Towne Centre Laurel opens

Just across the river in North Laurel, Apna Bazaar is an ethnic food store with deep roots in the Indian and Pakistani communities. This small, cozy store with narrow aisles and friendly banter has been around for 25 years, according to Adarsh Kumar, whose wife, Vena Kumari, owns the store.

The biggest seller, he said, are the curries.

"If you go to India and eat the curries on the street, the taste is entirely different" than what you might find in Indian restaurants doing business in the U.S., Kumar said.

Customers snap up curries that go into chicken and lamb kebob dishes. Kumar also features other staples such as jasmine and basmati rice, tandoori bread and Indian lentils. On the sweeter side, there are English-style cookies, a vestige of the era when India was under Great Britain's rule, and a treat called jalebi, a medley of flour and syrup that's fried.

"It's very, very sweet," he said.

Apna Bazaar also has established itself as a place where patrons come to pick up the latest DVDs from India, and grocery items such as hair oil and special soaps.

For years, Apna Bazaar was the only store in Laurel with an Indian bent. These days, the number is up to four. Among them, the largest is Indus Food on Fourth Street.

"There's a good rapport among the Indians and Pakistanis in Laurel," said Mir Raza, the manager. "They're close to each other. They help each other with their problems."

Other regular shoppers include those who hail from Sri Lanka, Nepal and Burma, he added. 

"I know a lot of Indian people in this area," said Alieya Abbas, a student at Reservoir High in Fulton. Many of them, she said, are settling in Howard County to take advantage of the good schools. She said the store fills an important void.

"Anything I can't find in an American store, I can find it here."

A bit of Italy

Pasta Plus Market on Gorman Avenue was one of the first ethnic markets to open in the current trend. In the mid 1990s, buoyed by the solid success of their Italian restaurant, brothers Sabatino and Massimo Mazziotti opened a carryout and specialty market next door. The store and carryout stocks fresh pasta — the restaurant's signature dish — and homemade tomato and marinara sauce, as well as Italian olive oil, wine and dried pasta.

"It's probably the only store of its kind in Laurel," Sabatino said. "You would have to go to Silver Spring or someplace" to find another outlet like it.

Offering a restaurant-market combination, Mazziotti said, "is convenient for the customer and good for business. They don't have to go any place else."  

On southbound Route 197, the Super Grand Market draws a sizable rush-hour crowd. The store, which operates in space formerly occupied by a Giant Food, has expanded its inventory of Korean foods to include far-flung regions of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, said Andy Anderson, the Korean-born assistant manager.

"A lot of the people who come here can't seem to find some products from their own country" at traditional chain stores, he explained. "I guess we're a niche."

Bestsellers include food from Vietnam, Burma, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, he said. Customers also come for the fish, which is always sold fresh. The expansive fish department, nestled in a rear corner, rolls out imposing displays of whole cod, salmon, tropical parrot fish, Chilean sea bass, sea snails and squid.

Non-seafood items include pallets stacked with instant corn maize to make tortillas and tamales, and Korean chestnuts. The clean and orderly grocery also sells 5-gallon drums of soy sauce and Korean-style starch noodles, has a window to transfer money and a small area is carved out that dispenses furniture.

Racine McFarlane, a native of Jamaica who works as a medical assistant in a pediatric office, said Super Grand was her go-to spot for food from home.

"Their international section is really good," she said, pointing to the aisle where the Jamaican goodies beckoned. She pointed to a section containing cans of Ackee — the salt water used to cook salted cod.

"It's our national dish," she stated proudly.

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