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Halal food is more than just an article of faith,
it is an exciting cultural medium that allows humanity to see Islamic values in action
Shahed Amanullah, Zabihah founder
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The New Halal: Foods that conform to Islamic law find a wider audience

When 19-year-old Mariam Hansia and her friends get a screaming yen for fast food, they hop in the car and drive all the way from their homes in Mill Valley to Julie's pad Thai-burger place in Berkeley.

In San Bruno, La Creperie du Monde attracts eager diners from as far away as San Ramon and points east for its Breton-style crepes. Cabbies Burger in San Francisco's Tenderloin is the spot for burritos.

What lures Hansia and others in the know is that these spots serve halal food -- food, especially meats, that meet Islamic dietary requirements, often described as "kosher for Muslims."

Driven by the fast-growing Muslim population, halal foods are headed toward wider popularity. Once confined to traditional back-home dishes like curries and couscous, halal restaurants now offer pizzas, burgers, hoagies, Thai and Mexican foods. Halal meat markets are multiplying, and halal chicken nuggets and hot links are showing up in some supermarkets.

The surge has many people believing that the American halal food industry, now in its infancy, will follow kosher foods into the mainstream, pushed not only by the faithful but by non-Muslim consumers seeking clean, healthy foods.

The local hotbed of halal (pronounced hah-LAL) is the South Bay, where new immigrants drawn to the high tech industry are selling the foods from back home. The trend is also highly visible in neighborhoods like San Francisco's Tenderloin, with its proliferation of Indo-Pakistani cafes. But it's also taking hold up and down the Peninsula, and in the East Bay from Hercules to Fremont.

Numbers have jumped

"In the last five years, there's been an explosion in the number of halal restaurants, because the demand is really increasing,'' says Shahed Amanullah, a civil engineer who lives in the East Bay and started a Web site four years ago to help fellow Muslims stay on top of the scene. Zabihah.com lists restaurants and markets by region, all over the country, and invites reviews and comments from readers.

"I've seen it go from maybe 10 I was aware of in 1999 to almost 100 in the Bay Area. It's just taken off,'' Amanullah says. "It's very exciting for Muslims born here. That's our palate. When a halal burger joint opens up, that's really exciting.''

Meat markets are popping up on more street corners, most of them family owned and serving as community centers as well. At Salama Halal Meat in San Francisco, an old man is offered a chair while he waits for his order to be custom cut. While fresh meat and chicken comprise the markets' main business, the bigger shops now have freezers stuffed with kid-friendly halal pepperoni pizza and chicken nuggets, and coolers brimming with halal salami and cold cuts.

Koran's dietary code

Halal literally means "permitted," and refers to the Islamic dietary code based on what the Koran says is allowable for Muslims to eat and what they should avoid. Mostly, it's about the meat. Pork is forbidden. Other meats -- beef, lamb, goat and poultry -- must be raised as cleanly and humanely as possible (organic isn't required), and blessed during slaughter, a process called zabihah. Slaughter itself should be done by hand with a sharp knife, though some Islamic scholars have interpreted the code to allow mechanical slaughter and a tape recorded prayer.

Every Monday morning at Harris Ranch in Fresno, halal meat broker Amin Attia shows up to calm, bless and quickly slice the throats of about 100 cattle. The carcasses are bled out quickly, which Muslims believe drains out all disease and impurities. Attia, who is recognized by his Fresno mosque, certifies the meat and sends it on its way to shops like the large, gleaming Halal Food Market in Berkeley and Salama Halal Meat in San Francisco.

At Fulton Valley Farms and Petaluma Poultry in Sonoma County, other mosque representatives slaughter chickens on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Many meat and poultry producers around the country now provide similar services to supply the halal market, and Harrison Poultry in Georgia has started a national halal brand called Al Marwah.

Besides the rules governing meat, halal has other requirements: No alcohol -- which means ingredients like vanilla extract, which can contain alcohol, are off limits; no cheese made with rennet, which means most cheeses are forbidden. Most fish and vegetables are OK, although pesticides should be avoided.

Muslims vary widely in how strictly they stick to halal. Many avoid pork and alcohol, but will buy kosher or even supermarket meats. Some will frequent In-N-Out burger, believing it cleaner because it's run by Christians who print biblical references on their burger wrap and soda containers.

Checking the labels

Strict halal adherents scan every label at the supermarket for off-limits ingredients (gelatin, since it's an animal product), additives, chemicals and animal byproducts. Internet resources answer urgent questions about whether Philadelphia cream cheese (yes) or Walgreen's high-protein powder (no) are halal.

People who want to observe halal have an easier time than ever in the Bay Area. For one thing, there are more markets -- and they're still the only place to buy fresh halal meats and poultry.

Indus Foods in Berkeley is one of the pioneers, opening in the 1970s to supply halal goat meat to Pakistanis and Indians who were settling around University and San Pablo avenues, according to Shahid Salimi, who manages the store for his father. Since then, the gleaming Halal Food Market has opened a couple of storefronts down San Pablo Avenue and has just doubled in size. At least three halal markets are strung down Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. Business is that good, says Salimi.

"We see a growing trend toward non-Muslims coming in, people who live in the neighborhood. We get Jewish customers,'' says Salimi, who has degrees in economics and business and harbors big ambitions to push halal into the American mainstream.

His freezer carries the halal pepperoni pizza and chicken nuggets manufactured by Al Safa, a Toronto-based company founded by David Muller, an Orthodox Jew. Muller expects sales, which were $10 million last year, will hit $100 million by 2008.

Salimi persuaded Harrison Poultry in Bethlehem, Ga., to start offering halal chicken in the 1990s. Business turned out to be so good that in February Harrison launched its Al Marwah brand. Now, just seven months later, sales have climbed to 50,000 pounds a week, and company president Larry Guest expects that to multiply tenfold in the next couple of years.

Supermarkets are starting to pay attention, too. In the Bay Area, Albertsons has started selling frozen pizzas, chicken nuggets and other processed halal foods in 19 stores. Markets like Indus, though, still supply all the fresh meats.

Eating out is another story. Until recently, halal choices have been limited, especially for Muslims raised with all-American taste buds.

"It was hard growing up, and especially going to high school," says Suleman Hansia, Mariam's brother. Lunchtime at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley meant McDonald's, says Suleman, 22, who graduated in 2000 and went to the College of Marin. "I'd go, but I'd have to eat the fish fillet -- but you can only eat so much fish," he says. "You become a sort of vegetarian who just eats meat at home."

It's not all curry

Or you eat a lot of curry and naan -- until recently, that is.

Julie's Healthy Cafe burger and Thai lunch counter was the leading edge of the trend, opening up 10 years ago across from the UC Berkeley campus and becoming a gathering place for the local Muslim community, especially on Friday afternoons after prayers. Now there's a wraps place and a chaat spot in downtown Berkeley, and a halal pizza place on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland.

In the last year, a halal burger and burrito place called Cabbies Burger, and Star Thai, with its southern Thai cooking, have brought new flavors to Tenderloin halal. And a month ago the Hansia family opened an attractive halal Indian restaurant in the area, with table service and a Gujarati menu a cut above the more standard bare-bones places.

In San Bruno, La Creperie du Monde in the Bayhill shopping center, testifies to halal's mainstream potential. Owner Sami Fars created the cozy cafe to serve savory and dessert crepes that just happen to be halal. Mostly, it means seeking out a halal meat supplier, and paying a bit more for meats.

People crowd in for the food and ambience. Fars says 99 percent of his customers are not Muslim, but that Muslims will drive from Contra Costa County to eat there.

Halal creperie

Most customers don't know the meat is halal, and Fars expresses a passing worry that exposure might drive his creperie into a niche, or discourage customers who don't understand what halal means.

At Sultan, the Hansia family likewise appeals to home-grown palates with their "All American Breakfast" -- eggs with bacon, pancakes with sausage. That's beef bacon and beef sausage, and they're halal.

Back at Julie's Healthy Cafe, Nooreen Sharif slathers ketchup on her cheeseburger. She always stops in when she's in Berkeley.

Even with all the new places opening up, especially in Fremont where she lives, "We still don't get too many fast-food restaurants," she says, and hopes the trend will bring more.

What about a three-star French restaurant, the kind many Bay Area gourmets take for granted? Sharif opens her eyes wide but shakes her head.

"That would be nice," she says. "But that's asking too much."

(San Francisco Chronicle, September 3, 2003)

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