Monday, February 28, 2011
The front of the store looks like any other gas station. Pumps outside, pop in the refrigerator section, chips and candy for purchase, every kind of cigarette under the sun.
But tucked back into the back two aisles of Shop N Go 104, 1000 W. 23rd St., is a treasure trove of traditional Indian spices, frozen foods, produce, dry ingredients and drinks. It’s a place that owner Rahim Lirani says has become a regular shopping stop for Indian students and Lawrence residents.
“That store has a small part of India in it,” says Ranu Pal, Lawrence resident from the Bengal region of India.
Lirani says many students come to the store so they can cook food they’re used to without making the jump to American food immediately.
“We get many students here. They don’t have any other options,” he says. “Someone comes from a different country, and they aren’t used to the food.”
Familiar items such as large bags of turmeric and coriander can be spotted on the shelves, but items less common in American cooking include ghee, almond oil, bags of gram flour and various spice mixes for traditional dishes. Lirani has freezers dedicated to Indian foods and has two aisles full of ingredients and dry pre-packaged meals. In the cooler there is even a selection of produce and the common Indian drink Thums Up.
The offerings of the store expand beyond food, though. Lirani stocks Indian movies for purchase or rent, keeps Indian mouth freshener, soaps and incense.
In a town the size of Lawrence, where the next option for Indian ingredients is miles away, Pal says a store like this is necessary.
“In a small town you cannot otherwise survive,” she said.
She started going to the store for spices in between trips to Kansas City, then started buying the gas there after a while. She was initially surprised by the combination of a typical gas station and market.
“It’s really amazing because you can find a combination of these things only in the United States,” she says. “People go there not only for buying gas, but also for the flavors of Indian subcontinent.”
Pal says she’s met people at the store through conversations that started over movies or food.
“We find so many similarities,” she says. “A conversation starts over movies, then become friends.”
Anita Sampat is part of the community that shops at the store, where she goes for food she remembers from growing up. Sampat’s family cooked Indian food regularly, and her hometown, Topeka, didn’t have a place to shop for traditional ingredients. So her family would have to drive to Kansas City.
Sampat, a Kansas University graduate and receptionist at International Student and Scholar Services, heard about the gas station that sold Indian food her junior year and has been shopping there ever since for her favorite foods.
“I checked it out and continued to go there,” Sampat says. “I picked up some stuff from home.”
On a recent shopping trip, she picked up some spices and chile peppers that can’t be found easily in American markets, as well as paneer, an Indian cheese. She often buys her spices at the store because the quantities are larger.
“I also trust the brand a little more,” she says.
For when she’s really low on time, she’ll buy a prepackaged meal, and while she says they’re not as good as home cooking, they can do in a crunch.
“They’re a good alternative if you don’t have time,” she says.