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Halal food lands on menus

Growing up in Dearborn, Zeinab Chami often was tempted by ads for Col. Sanders' original recipe, the finger-lickin' meal sold by fast-food giant KFC.

However, Chami was an observant Muslim, and the restaurant's chicken was not halal, meaning it wasn't prepared according to Islamic law. Her choices usually were limited to what her immigrant parents cooked or the occasional takeout from Middle Eastern restaurants.

But now she's able to get a taste of KFC. Last month, the restaurant's east Dearborn restaurant began selling halal chicken, a change that reflects the growing demand for halal products among metro Detroit's sizable Muslim population.

Underneath the colonel's bearded face, the store's sign reads "Now serving halal original & crispy." The juxtaposition of an American icon with Islamic tradition is a striking display of the changing landscape of southeast Michigan. Halal meat is not new to Dearborn's butcher shops and Arab restaurants, but a growing number of national chains have been accommodating the local demand for Muslim food in recent years.

"A lot has changed just in the past decade," said Bilal Dabaja, 22, a Dearborn resident who eats halal. "More people want these products."

The change is similar to how the growing Jewish population decades ago led to kosher becoming part of the American food industry and vocabulary. The kosher symbols "K" and "U" can be seen today on everything from Heinz ketchup bottles to Fruity Pebbles cereal boxes.

Muslims hope to create a similar market for halal products.

In Dearborn, two McDonald's restaurants are the only ones selling halal Chicken McNuggets and sandwiches among about 13,700 McDonald's in the country. Ram's Horn, a local chain of diners, and Big Boy restaurants also serve halal meat in the city. And a manager at a Subway restaurant in Dearborn hopes it soon will become halal, but it is facing difficulties because of the chain's insistence on using uniform meat suppliers.

Many in the Muslim community welcome the restaurants' changes, but some are still reluctant to eat there because they haven't been vetted by Islamic scholars.

Halal is an Arabic word that generally refers to "what is permitted." Its opposite, haram, refers to what is forbidden.

Like Jews, Muslims don't eat pork. Halal also requires that during the slaughters, the animal must face Mecca, its blood be totally drained, and the butcher has to say a prayer invoking God.

Drinking alcohol is also considered not halal, and so some Muslims would refuse to eat at the now-defunct La Shish chain because they sold beer and wine.

There are varying interpretations among Islamic leaders as to what exactly is halal. And individuals make personal decisions on how to eat halal depending on strictly they observe Islam.

One challenge is determining if the meat is truly halal.

"A sign saying it's halal is not always enough," said Imam Mohammad Elahi, a religious scholar who heads the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights. "There needs to be other evidence."

A general rule is that if the preparer is Muslim and says the meat is halal, it's OK, But if the preparer is non-Muslim, you have to dig further to back up the claims.

In some cases, halal slaughterhouses are now using recordings of a man saying an Islamic prayer that repeats itself each time an animal is killed so that it's halal.

Chami, 23, wants to try KFC's chicken, but is reluctant because she hasn't seen how it's prepared. One concern that she and Dabaja have is whether KFC uses separate fryers for its halal and non-halal meat, because using the same fryer contaminates the halal. When Chami eats tuna or vegetarian sandwiches at Subway restaurants, she always asks the sandwich preparer to don another set of plastic gloves because they might have the taint of non-halal meats on them.

Store employees at the KFC and McDonald's in east Dearborn said they use separate fryers. At the Subway on Schaefer in Dearborn, manager Ramsey Hourani said he wants to make his store halal, but "it's a lot more difficult than it sounds" because of the company's insistence on restaurants using similar food suppliers.

In England, Subway is rolling out all-halal restaurants in up to 200 locations, according to Zabihah.com, a Web site that tracks halal restaurants around the world. Hourani hopes that one day, American stores can take a similar path.

For now, many Muslims often stick with halal products they find in Middle Eastern grocery stores such as halal marshmallow crispy treats.

But others are excited about the KFC restaurant in Dearborn. Tarek Baydoun, 23, of Dearborn, heard about the halal chicken through a friend's text message. This month, he went there with his family.

"It's a good value and it's very tasty," Baydoun said. "It was bound to happen because it just makes sense from a business perspective."

(Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press, March 30, 2008)

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