Penn Halal Grocery Offers International Students A ‘Taste Of Home’

As an international student, it’s tough to find food that reminds me of home. When I came to State College from Brazil, I didn’t expect to find anything close to Brazilian food in the area.

The president of the Brazilian Student Association told me about an international store downtown that had pão de queijo, a Brazilian cheese bread, and I knew I needed to check it out.

Penn Halal Grocery, located at 236 E. Calder Way, carries a good deal of international food and product, most of which are available on GrubHub and DoorDash, too. Its owner, Syed Jawad, said a lack of international food in State College was behind its creation.

“I have friends and cousins that graduated from Penn State, and they were the ones who had difficulty finding international food in town,” Jawad said. “When I first opened the store, my main concept was to only provide what the students wanted.

“I don’t wanna bring stuff that people can find on Walmart or Giant. I wanted to bring stuff that students could not find before in State College,” Jawad continued. “And that’s the reason I kept coming after many nationalities to see what they wanted.”

Ever since the store opened in 2019, its inventory has been curated toward what students are asking for. Jawad, who is known for being conversational and friendly, said that students often make requests in person, helping him plan for the future.

Noticing my accent (and probably the fact that I was eyeing a certain aisle with cassava and tapioca), he explained how he first introduced Brazilian food to the store.

“It was all because of two Brazilian students that already graduated,” Jawad explained. “They came up to me and said that they were missing their food, and I told them that if they gave me a list of what they wanted, I would look for providers to get the supplies.

“They made a list with 57 items with both Brazilian and Mexican items that they wanted, and now everything that you see right there was from their list,” Jawad said, pointing to an aisle labeled “Brazilian food.”

Nepalis, Bengalis, Indians, Pakistanis, and Brazilians are the most frequent buyers at the store, according to its owner. Jawad explained that during their first year, many international students didn’t come for the food. Instead, they’d come only for quick items that don’t need cooking.

First-year students, obviously, are living on campus and are already paying for their meals, so they come mainly for the snacks. After the first semester, students come to Penn Halal for more complex items.

“Nepalis and Bengalis, for example, like to cook at home,” Jawad said. “They buy the spices and the produce to cook at home. Brazilians come here a lot, too.”

At Penn Halal, you can find Pakola (a Pakistani soft drink), Pani Puri (an Indian snack), Chinese Manchurian, Tapal Danedar Loose Tea, and many other products that can usually take you on a trip across continents.

The store is a completely different environment full of products not offered anywhere else in State College. Jawad said there’s always a chance for students to try something new from a different culture.

“This is the opportunity for people to come in and explore different nationalities, different species like Brazilian, Indian, Pakistani, Nepali, Bengali, and Turkish,” Jawad said. “These are the main nationalities that I work with. I would like to expand to other nationalities, but with the pandemic, I thought it was better to just take these ones first.”

Traffic in the store has been reduced slightly due to the pandemic and international students staying home. However, Jawad is confident about what next semester will bring.

In the meantime, he said he appreciates anybody in town who stops by.

“In my store, I don’t worry about nationality. Whoever wants to come by is more than welcome,” Jawad said.

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About the Author

Renata Daou

Renata is a junior majoring in International Politics and one of Onward State's contributors. She's from Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil and no, she doesn't live in the middle of the Amazon forest. She likes learning new languages, reading, writing, and talking about the one time she went bungee jumping.
Follow her on Twitter @renatadaou to see her rant in Portenglish or e-mail her at [email protected] for serious inquires.

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