International flavor with a taste of home

Columbia grocery offers food, fare that meets Islamic standards

Business profile Sizar's Food Mart

October 11, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Mohammad Vohra, waiting with his mother, Yasmeen, to buy lamb at the small butcher's counter in the back of Sizar's Food Mart, said he's been coming to the Columbia store a couple of times a week for about seven years.

He buys nearly all his groceries there, he said, but he especially relies on Sizar's for meat that is halal, or slaughtered according to Islamic law.

"Everything is fresh," said Vohra, who is from Pakistan and lives in Jessup. "We don't have to worry about it."

The store, opened by Mohammad and Fari Sizar in 1994, sells halal goat, lamb, chicken, beef and veal.

In order for meat to qualify as halal, the creature must have never been given hormones and must have never consumed blood or meat. There are other requirements. One is that after the animal is killed, the carcass is hung upside down so all the blood drains out. Pork is not allowed.

"One thing special about our store," said Fari Sizar, "is that here, the people do not just buy the stuff. We have a familiar atmosphere for them. We talk to them in their own languages, sometimes we have music playing, and they like it. We have a lot of loyal customers."

The store packs a lot into about 2,000 square feet. There are videos to buy or rent, and CDs and newspapers in Arabic and Farsi. There are hookahs, audio books of the Quran and clocks that show the six times a day that Muslims pray.

And, of course, lots of food. The Sizars get most of their items from distributors in New York and California, but the meat comes from Virginia.

"Right now, our meat section is small for the number of customers," Fari said. "We have a lot of non-Muslim customers who want our meat because it is healthier."

The store is packed floor to ceiling, but it doesn't feel crowded. When customers walk in, they are greeted by a display of Turkish delights and other candies. Bins of pita breads also are near the door.

Once inside, they walk through aisles packed with teas, spices, lentils, fava beans, pickles and much more. Cartons of mango, pomegranate and guava juice are next to bottles of syrups in flavors such as orange blossom and quince lemon that can be added to water.

There are bags of basmati and jasmine rice, cans of stuffed grape leaves, and boxes of garam masala seasoning and hummus mixes. Also for sale are pots and pans, tea kettles and tiny ceramic cups for Turkish coffee.

A community board has signs posted in English, Farsi and Arabic. One, written in Farsi, is offering Persian violin lessons. One in English is from a family seeking child care.

The freezer contains, among other things, falafel, pad Thai, lentil samosas, Indian and Persian ice creams, a sweet Armenian bread called gata, Indian naan bread, spring rolls and artichokes.

A dairy case is stuffed with cheeses from Iran, Greece, Armenia, Syria, Cypress, India and Egypt. Mohammad said that if customers make requests, he'll do his best to stock what they want. There are two kinds of kashkaval cheese, one from Cypress made from goat's milk and one from Turkey made with cow's milk.

"It has a different taste," Mohammad said. "Some people, they like this one. Some people like that one. In this business, we have to have variety."

The Sizars say they would like to open a larger store, around 6,000 square feet, but they haven't found the right location.

The couple, who met and married in Iran, moved from West Chester, Pa., to Maryland in 1994 because a relative told them that Howard County would be a good place to open a business.

"Here, there are more international people" than in West Chester, said Mohammad.

The first few years, though, were a struggle, the couple recalled. Their children were very young, and the two seemed to be working all the time. "After that, we're doing very well," Mohammad said. "Right now the store is too small."

Farrah Lakeh, shopping for bread and other supplies, said she's already a loyal customer. "All the Persian stuff that I want, I get here," she said.

Sizar's Food Mart is in Snowden Center, at 6955A Oakland Mills Road, Columbia. 410-381-4375.

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