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Growing Muslim population impacts Atlanta's food industry

The growing demand for foods conforming to Islamic dietary regulations is prompting more Atlanta businesses to offer products that are halal, or permissible according to the Quran.

Though opinions vary as to how strictly these rules should be followed, meat is generally considered halal if butchered in accordance with certain guidelines designed to reduce the suffering of the animal. All products containing pork, blood and alcohol are forbidden, among other restrictions.

Shahed Amanullah, founder of Zabihah.com, a San Francisco-based Web site that allows visitors to list and review businesses offering halal products, said that the number of Atlanta businesses catering to the needs of Muslims is above the national average.

"Any city that has more than 50 restaurants looks like a really large [Muslim] population," he said. "In Atlanta's case, you have a large population of professional Muslim people, and they're starting to demand [halal products]."
Zabihah.com lists 94 Atlanta-area businesses serving halal products, making the Georgia capital the sixth highest of any metropolitan area in the country behind New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Detroit, in that order.

The Atlanta restaurants range from Iklas, a Mediterranean seafood restaurant on Campbellton Road with halal certification displayed in a window, to a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Marietta that is known to be owned by Muslims, according to the site.

Mr. Amanullah, who said that he grew up eating kosher food because it was easier to find than halal products, added that there has been an explosion of growth in the halal food industry. He estimated that the number of halal businesses in the U.S. has grown from about 200 when he began the Web site five years ago to nearly 4,000 today.

Celebrity chef Zamzani Abdul Wahab, known as "Chef Zam" to Malaysian television viewers, toured the U.S. last August to film a documentary on the availability of halal foods for Muslim tourists.

He visited Atlanta to celebrate 50 years of Malaysian nationhood and cooked ayam percik, a traditional chicken dish, for guests at the Malaysian Association of Georgia's annual gala.

Chef Zam, currently a senior lecturer in the School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts at KDU College in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital, told GlobalAtlanta that Muslim tourists often have difficulty finding halal foods outside their own countries.

"Muslims are traveling all over the world now, and the increasing need for halal food, particularly meat, is tremendous," he said.

However, the proliferation of halal foods is sparking increasing debate about what is and is not strictly halal.

Gordon Newby, chair of the Middle Eastern and South Asian studies program at Emory University, said that the decision to follow halal restrictions is a personal one for Muslims.

Some businesses consider meat halal if butchered by the method outlined in the Quran, but the strictest definition of the rule stipulates that meat cooked on the same surface as non-halal products should be avoided.

Ekin Kislali, owner of Caf Istanbul in Decatur, said that he stocks halal products to appeal to a wider clientele, adding that many requests for such products come from the Indian and Pakistani communities near his restaurant.

The caf contains many traditionally Turkish elements, including a seating section filled with cushions and low tables to allow customers to sit on the floor.

Mr. Kislali, who co-owns the cafe with his brother, receives criticism from some customers and on Zabihah.com readers for serving alcohol alongside halal products.

Mr. Kislali said that freedom of choice sets the U.S. apart from other nations: businesspeople choose whether to serve halal products and consumers choose where to eat.

(Mike Rast, Jr., Global Atlanta, January 11, 2008)

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