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Muslims find more halal restaurants and food providers

BOSTON - Chicken tandoori, shami kebab, and lamb korma are among the exotic dishes offered at Grain and Salt, a new South Asian eatery in Allston. But Salim Nguyen, an observant Muslim from Wayland who eats only halal, the Islamic equivalent of kosher, is drawn to Grain and Salt's American fare.

"I can get Indo-Pakistani food at home," says Nguyen, 36, who grew up in Natick on the Indian cooking of his mother. Today he enjoys the Pakistani cuisine his wife prepares. But he's seldom been able to indulge in the foods his non-Muslim friends ate, like burgers, burritos, and chicken tenders because the meat wasn't zabihah -- slaughtered according to Islamic rites -- and thus wasn't halal. "Grain and Salt enabled me to eat Buffalo wings, which I always craved for but I couldn't have."

Halal restaurants and groceries catering to devout Muslims are proliferating across America, and Boston is no exception. On zabihah.com, sort of a Muslim Zagat's, where diners can rate halal restaurants, there are more than 19,000 reviews for more than 5,000 restaurants and grocers, including 72 in and around Boston. But zabihah meat is no longer just for curries and kebabs or other dishes common in the Islamic world. As more Muslims are born in or come to the United States at an early age and experience what other American palates experience, zabihah meat is landing in everything from tacos and teriyaki to Philly cheese-steaks and chicken chow mein.

In Arabic, halal means permitted, and pertains not only to food, but also cosmetics and personal care products, as well as behavior and ethics. According to the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of North America, one of several US-based certifiers of halal products, all food and drink are generally considered halal except pork, carnivorous animals, birds of prey , and land animals without external ears, as well as animals that were dead before slaughtering or improperly slaughtered , and blood.

Zabihah meat, a key aspect of keeping halal, excludes animals killed by machine. Rather, the person slaughtering the animal cuts its jugular vein while intoning a short prayer. The blood, viewed as a carrier of disease, is then drained from the animal. For many zabihah-conscious Muslims, this dietary observance manifests Islam's acknowledgement that spirituality and health go hand in hand.

A generation ago, fulfilling this religious mandate wasn't easy. Nguyen, whose family came here in 1979, recalled making day-trips with his family to Western Massachusetts, where farmers his father had befriended would let him perform the zabihah himself. The family would then haul home the meat, usually beef and lamb, and store it in their freezer. For poultry, they only had to go to Chinatown, where market owners also let people perform their own zabihah butchering.

Ali Hacham and brothers Hasan and Hassan Kassab, who today own Shawarma King in Brookline, also used to perform their own zabihah slaughtering courtesy of a Western Massachusetts farmer, to supply the Quality Meat Market, which they opened in Roslindale Square in 1988. At the time, it was one of only two or three zabihah meat markets in Boston, they say.

"There is halal meat all over the market now," says Hassan Kassab, who with his partners sold Quality Meat in 1991 and opened Shawarma King the next year. Now , the Kassab brothers get their zabihah meat from City Packing, a distributor in Boston, and their chicken from Poultry Products in Hookset, N.H., all of which come with a certified halal stamp.

When Abdul Hamid came here two years ago from Egypt, where zabihah is ubiquitous, he went online to find the nearest mosque to his hotel, which turned out to be the Islamic Center of Sharon. He took a cab there six days later, and was promptly directed to ZamZam Foods in Norwood. "It really wasn't difficult," says Hamid, 33, who in the interim restricted himself to seafood and vegetarian dishes. "As a Muslim, we are obligated to eat halal food, and if you don't find it, you try to find other alternatives."

At ZamZam, opened two years ago by Allya and Aftab Ahmed, the spice shelf is packed with mixes for chapli kebab, korma curry, and biryani rice, while the freezer case reflects zabihah's migration from east to west. There are traditional favorites like samosas, but also beef patties and chicken ten-ders.

A number of entrepreneurs have started halal businesses, such as Crescent Foods in Chicago and Al Safa Foods and Madina Fine Foods, both in Ontario. Their success, halal consumers say, is due in large part to customers hungry for burgers, chicken strips , and the like. There are even companies that produce halal gelatins, such as Malaysia-based Halagel.

At ZamZam, traditional American cuts are as popular as cubed meat for curries. "We have introduced customers to sirloin tips and filet mignon. Many, they never ordered it before," says Allya Ahmed, who has the meat delivered from a zabihah farm in upstate New York. "You shouldn't be deprived. That's why we have halal T-bones. Now they can enjoy the same things that other Americans have."

Dining out was once a rarity among zabihah-observant Muslims. Even when they avoided meat at restaurants, they still had to pepper wait staff with questions or special requests. Are soups prepared with vegetable broth or animal broth? Can the bacon bits be left out of the salad? Is there wine in the sauce? Does the dessert contain gelatin (derived mainly from pigskins and cattle bones)?

But over the last several years, the number of halal restaurants has increased dramatically. When Shahed Amanullah started zabihah.com in 1999 with a couple of friends in the San Francisco Bay Area, they listed some 200 local establishments. But diners from across North America sent in reviews of halal restaurants they encountered close to home or while traveling. Indeed, users say the website has been a boon for travelers in unfamiliar cities looking for a halal meal for their family or after a long business meeting.

Users can search restaurants by city and halal authenticity is measured by indicators that range from "halal certificate on display" and "owners are known Muslims" to "verbal assurance from staff" and "unverified."

With their tastes expanding, Muslim Americans are developing their own zabihah foodie culture. The same way some couples might take cooking and cuisine tours of Mexico or France, Muslim Americans are taking trips -- if not so far-flung -- that are centered around eating zabihah.

Nguyen and his wife have made such trips to Toronto, Houston, and the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens. But the trips are also a reminder that Boston, despite having one of the oldest Muslim communities in America, has a tame halal scene compared to bigger cities. For example, when husband and wife Ali Hina and Halima Khan of Mansfield visit her family in Stockton, Calif., they make sure they get halal Chinese food. "There's halal Chinese everywhere, and we miss that," says Khan. "You don't have as much variety [in Boston] as in other places."

Grain and Salt owner Syed Shabbir believes Grain and Salt is poised for success.

"A lot of customers say they can get halal Indian or Pakistani food at a lot of places. But chicken wings, steak and cheese, they want it but they can't have it," says Shabbir.

Now they can.

(Omar Sacirbey, Boston Globe, March 21, 2007)

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