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Online guide helps Muslims on-the-go find Ramadan fare

Radiologist Omar Qureshi and his wife, Mona, a master's degree student, don't always have the time or energy to cook at home and they enjoy eating out. But as observant Muslims, they eat only meat that is "zabihah" -- butchered according to Islamic law and dietary restrictions.

So when a friend in Buffalo, N.Y., recently invited the couple to try Kebab and Curry, a restaurant he found on www.zabihah.com, an online directory of zabihah restaurants, the Qureshis happily drove the 70 or so miles from their home in Rochester, N.Y.

And since it was Ramadan, Islam's holy month when observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown and try to spend time with family and friends, the offer was doubly appealing.

The restaurant owners provided dates, a spicy fruit salad called chaat and somosas -- which Pakistani Muslims traditionally use to break their fast -- for their diners the moment they could eat, followed by a main course of chicken tikka masala and karahi lamb and chicken. The owners even set aside a room in which diners could perform evening prayers, as is customary between the initial breaking of the fast and the main course.

"It was a great experience all around," said Omar Qureshi, who praised the restaurant in his review on zabihah.com, one of more than 40 he's done, under the pseudonym Chuck Islam.

Muslim Americans are using zabihah.com and similar Web sites to find restaurants that meet their dietary restrictions. Site traffic spikes during Ramadan, said zabihah.com's founder, Shahed Amanullah, as Muslim Americans, many stuck in the office when the sun sets, contemplate where they can get a meal that is halal, or "permitted," under Islamic law.

At the same time, the Web site is helping to foster a burgeoning eat-out culture among Muslims, one helped by Americans' penchant for ethnic cuisine. While Muslims have traditionally eaten iftar, the meal that breaks the fast, at home, Amanullah asserts dining out has, far from undermining the family meal, brought Muslims closer together.

Amanullah started the site with a few friends in 1999, listing some 200 restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area, where they all lived. Before zabihah.com, people found out about zabihah restaurants only through word of mouth, Amanullah said.

The site was a smash with local Muslims, many of whom e-mailed information about restaurants they had visited. Amanullah reckoned the appetite for an online guide of zabihah restaurants was national, and opened the site to reviews from across the U.S. Today, zabihah.com has almost 18,000 reviews of more than 4,600 restaurants, including about 1,000 from London, Paris, Singapore and other foreign cities.

Similar sites exist for kosher-keeping Jews, such as Shamash.org, which claims customer-generated reviews for more than 2,510 restaurants.

Amanullah developed the site to make it easier for Muslims in non-Muslim majority countries to find restaurants and markets that offer food prepared according to Islamic dietary restrictions. While Muslims use the site year-round, it has become especially handy during Ramadan, when many Muslims find themselves working, commuting or traveling at the time they are supposed to end their fast.

Omar Qureshi, before moving back to Rochester this past summer, spent four years as a radiology resident at the University of Miami. There it was routine for him to get iftar to-go from restaurants he'd find on zabihah.com and then eat it at the hospital.

The site is perhaps most useful to travelers or people new to a city. When Umair Farooqui moved to Manassas, Va., from California's Silicon Valley in August, one of the first things he did was find a zabihah restaurant online. Now, "I know all the places I need to know," he said. He plans on a few iftars out before Ramadan concludes Oct. 22.

Users can search restaurants by city and find basic information such as cuisine, price and whether or not alcohol is served. 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."

For more details, users can read customer reviews that can be glowing or harsh, but also provide insights into the staff and clientele. "Cheap, very good food," writes one reviewer about Washington's El Khartoum restaurant. "The only thing that spoiled our meal" was another diner who "was casting judgment on the sisters' clothing."

By giving a voice to Muslim diners, Amanullah believes the site is forcing zabihah restaurants to improve their standards.

"I didn't want the providers of halal food to take advantage of the fact that they were a sole supplier or people were coming to them because they had to," Amanullah said. "This is the great thing about America: Consumers are very assertive about their rights. And when they do that, they produce a better service, and that's what we've done with Muslim restaurants who have taken their audience for granted."

Restaurants are now looking for other ways to serve the faithful. Like a growing number of Muslim-owned restaurants, The Boston Kebab House offers a special Ramadan menu, but also provides a separate room for Muslims who pray, as well as eat, on the go.

Some traditionalists might frown on the idea of eating out for iftar, but Amanullah argues it enhances Ramadan. "To go out and enjoy meals with other families, it's a collective experience. It makes Ramadan more festive, and more interesting and more communal."

Zabihah.com is not alone. At Muslimconsumergroup.com, run by Syed Rasheeduddin Ahmed, a food scientist from Rolling Meadows, Ill., Muslim consumers can see which supermarket products and fast-food items are halal or not. According to the site, while Burger King's Veggie Burger is deemed not halal because it is cooked with lard products, McDonald's fish fillet -- minus the cheese and tartar sauce -- is.

While these sites were originally intended to help Muslims in non-Muslim majority countries, Amanullah is considering taking the site to Muslim majority countries.

"The Muslim world needs it too. Even in places where everything is halal, you have restaurants taking advantage of their customers because they don't respond to that criticism the way they do in America."

(Omar Sacirbey, Religion News Service, October 12, 2006)

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