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Shahed Amanullah, Zabihah founder
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More menus cater to Muslims

Practicing Muslims who have a craving for a burger or hot dog can't just go to any restaurant.

They have to make sure the meat they're eating is zabiha halal, or prepared according to Islamic custom.

Until recently, the restaurants where they could be assured of this were mostly mom-and-pop operations serving their native dishes.

But increasingly, fast-food restaurants are meeting the needs of Muslim diners with Western tastes by offering menu items that are halal-certified.

Earlier this month, a KFC restaurant in Rogers Park began offering halal chicken. Store owner Afzal Lokhandwala also runs a halal KFC in Lombard that, when it opened in 2003, was the first of its kind in the nation, according to a KFC spokeswoman.

Three Brown's Chicken & Pasta stores in the Chicago area also offer halal items. A fourth opening this summer on Devon Avenue will offer an entire halal menu, owner Nasir Yaqoob said.

Nationwide, Outback Steakhouse uses halal lamb from New Zealand in its restaurants, and some Sizzler stores on the West Coast serve halal items.

Alcohol, pork not on list

"Halal food was considered even just a few years ago as being primarily ethnic, back-home, comfort food," said Shahed Amanullah, 38, an MBA student in Washington, D.C., who runs the Web site zabihah.com, which tracks halal restaurants and grocery stores around the world.

These days, said Amanullah, "pretty much every metropolitan area in the country has halal Thai, Chinese, pizza, burgers."

Halal means lawful or permitted and refers to all aspects of Muslim life, including food and drink. Vegetables, eggs and seafood are among the foods that are halal; alcohol and pork are not.

Other meats, such as chicken and veal, are halal but must be zabiha, or slaughtered according to Islamic rites. Generally, that means the person slaughtering prays before cutting the animal's throat and letting the blood drain, said Saad Asrar, a food scientist with the Chicago-based Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, the largest U.S. group that certifies food products and ingredients as halal.

There is some debate in the Muslim community over whether animals slaughtered by machine rather than by hand are zabiha. And there are factors in the fast-food setting that Muslim consumers can't control or may not be aware of -- for example, if the same fryer is used to fry halal and non-halal items, said Rasheed Ahmed of the Muslim Consumer Group, another Chicago-based halal certification group. All of that makes eating out at mainstream restaurants that say they're halal to some extent "buyers beware," said Amanullah.

Still, many restaurants make it a point to display their certification in their stores, and most Muslims agree the growing number of dining options is encouraging.

When Amanullah started the Web site in 1999, he listed about 200 halal restaurants in the United States, 20 of those in the Chicago area. He now counts 2,500 nationwide and more than 100 in the Chicago area, among them Chinese, Italian and pizza eateries.

'It all depends on location'

Halal fast food hasn't gone totally mainstream. There are two McDonald's serving halal items in Dearborn, Mich., which has a sizeable Arab population, but no plans to expand chainwide, a spokeswoman said. Major chains and individual store owners say that may not be feasible anyway, unless it makes sense for the surrounding community.

"From a business perspective, it all depends on location and numbers," said Yaqoob, 31, who with his family operates a Brown's Chicken in Skokie that offers halal chicken, hot dogs and cheeseburgers. Their other store in Northbrook does not "because it doesn't warrant it," he said. He plans to open a third Brown's Chicken at 2307 W. Devon, this one entirely halal, by July.

"It's finally getting to where people can feel comfortable going into restaurants and being able to eat without having the frustration of not being able to [eat] zabiha," he said.

(Chicago Sun-Times, April 24, 2006)

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