When Olaide Babalola moved from Nigeria to Lawrence about 20 years ago, the cassava, palm oil and red beans he was used to eating were nowhere to be found.
“We had to travel out to get food,” he said.
After years of driving to Kansas City, Mo., to find their native foodstuffs, Babalola and his wife opened African Caribbean Grocery and Gifts at 1530 W. Sixth St., in the same space as a laundry business they also run.
Theirs is one of several small ethnic grocery stores now operating in Lawrence. Like Babalola’s, many are tiny — tucked inside strip malls or other businesses — and likewise started by immigrants looking for a taste of home.
Mohammad Al-zaiti, president of Mediterranean Market and Cafe at 3300 W. Bob Billings Parkway, recalls searching for feta cheese when he was a student at Kansas University.
Al-zaiti said he found some, but it wasn’t good. And it wasn’t like the kind he was used to.
At first, he said, he joked about opening his own store just to get such food. Thirteen years ago, he did. Alongside many Mediterranean specialties, Al-zaiti’s deli case now houses big blocks of fresh Greek feta.
Cooking an exotic recipe and can’t find that strange spice at HyVee? Want a more adventurous afternoon snack? Missing a food you enjoyed while traveling abroad?
You may not have to go around the world (or to Kansas City) to get it. Try one of these 10 ethnic markets in Lawrence.
• African Caribbean Grocery and Gifts
Location: 1530 W. Sixth St., Suite F (shares storefront with Suds Laundry Service)
On the shelves: Fresh yam tubers and plantains; bulk dry red beans and honey beans; frozen meats including goat, snails, fish and stewing hens; powdered cassava; jerk marinade; palm oil; and African and Caribbean beverages and snacks.
• Asian Market
Location: 501 W. Ninth St.
On the shelves: Newly opened this month, this standalone Asian grocery store has a wide variety of dried noodles and mushrooms; sauces and oils; canned ginger and pickled vegetables; fruit juices, cookies and snacks; and kitchen equipment such as steamers and chopsticks. The cooler and freezer, which should be running by the end of this week, will offer fresh vegetables and fruit as well as frozen fish, meat and dumplings.
• La Estrella Mexican Store
Location: 2449 D Iowa St. (in the Holiday Plaza shopping center)
On the shelves: Fresh chicken feet and family-size — make that extended-family-size — cuts of beef; queso fresco, cotija and other Mexican cheeses; fresh papayas, avocados, tomatillos and other produce; dried chiles, tamarind pods and cinnamon sticks; epazote and other spices; Mexican ice cream treats; and pan dulce (Mexican pastries, baked in Topeka). La Estrella also sells health and beauty products, piñatas and other gifts.
• Mi Tiendita Grocery Store
Location: 3022 Iowa St. (behind the BP gas station)
On the shelves: Primarily snack food including Jarritos and other Mexican sodas; chicharrones, spiced potato chips, wheat pellets and other savory snacks; paletas (Latin American fresh-fruit flavored ice) and esquimos (creamy paletas dipped in chocolate and shaved coconut), made in Wichita; and staples such as tortillas and milk.
• Mediterranean Market and Cafe
Location: 3300 W. Bob Billings Parkway, Suite B5 (in the Orchards Corners shopping center)
On the shelves: A dozen varieties of bulk olives; house-made hummus, baba ghanoush, dolma and other dips and snacks; fresh saltana, halloumi and other cheeses; fresh baklava and halva; frozen meats including halal ground beef and leg of lamb; mint and other chutneys; labneh; bulk Turkish pine nuts, dried apricots and dates; spices; and Turkish coffee sets.
Dine in: The Mediterranean Market and Cafe is also has an order-at-the-counter restaurant serving gyros, falafel, shawarma, lamb curry, moussaka and other regional dishes.
• Aladdin Cafe Mediterranean Grocery
Location: 1021 Massachusetts St. (in the back section of the Aladdin Cafe restaurant)
On the shelves: Packaged Turkish delight and other snacks; Turkish- and Greek-style coffee; beans and rice; olive oils and canned olives; and spices. The grocery also sells hookahs and a variety of flavored tobaccos.
• Cosmos Indian Store
Location: 734 Massachusetts St.
On the shelves: Fresh produce including winter melon, bitter melon, ginger root, eggplant, coconuts and opo squash; bulk rice (up to 25-pound bags); tea; mustard oil and ghee; whole spices including star anise, cardamom, nutmeg and dried kokum; a wide variety of dried beans and peas; boxed spice mixes for curries and other Indian dinners; and canned chutney and pickled vegetables. Cosmos also sells Indian clothing and gifts.
Dine in: Cosmos has a few tables and serves hot Indian dishes to order — appetizers, entrees, desserts and beverages.
• Shop N Go Asian Groceries
Location: 1000 W. 23rd St. (inside the convenience store)
On the shelves: Despite the store’s name, the groceries here are almost exclusively Indian. There’s huge bags of rice; moong dal, corn, urad and other varieties of flour; dry matpe, muth, moong and other beans; sauces, snacks and spices; and frozen samosas and Indian meals.
Location: 929 Massachusetts St.
On the shelves: Tea galore — loose leaf and bagged, from black to herbal; British biscuits and cereals; jams and marmalades; packaged puddings and other canned food; imported sodas; and a variety of British gifts and souvenirs.
• Au Marché the European Market
Location: 931 Massachusetts St.
On the shelves: Gourmet chocolate (baking, bars and truffles); imported cheeses and sausages; European sodas; mustards, vinegars and other sauces; packaged cookies, cakes and candies; canned pâtés; and a variety of imported beauty products and gifts.