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Halal food is more than just an article of faith,
it is an exciting cultural medium that allows humanity to see Islamic values in action
Shahed Amanullah, Zabihah founder
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Many flock to food made under Islamic law

Over the course of a typical day inside Istanbul Restaurant and Cafe, American businessmen of various faiths come in to get a gyro lunch.

There are groups of Muslim men who come in to eat the Cornish hen platter, the kofta, and American-born Muslim girls who come for the lentil soup or the fresh honey-, ground nut- and butter-infused baklava. And there may be Latin American mothers who stop by for takeout pollo asado, the Mexican take on roast chicken. But whether they know it or not, when they eat at Istanbul on Nolensville Road, they are all eating halal.

Halal is the Islamic equivalent of the Jewish kosher, a set of rules about how animals are to be slaughtered, meat and other foods are to be processed, and food additives and ingredients can and cannot be consumed.

In the span of about seven years, halal eating has gained such a foothold in Nashville that the city has its own halal food corridor, said several Nashville store and restaurant owners offering halal goods.

"The meat that we serve here, it's halal, it has to be halal, we pay $20 to $30 more a case for our meat. But that's not such a problem. It makes me feel better because I know that my food and my heart is clean," said Mamet Arslan, Istanbul's owner, head cook and the driving force behind what one customer said Monday is the best baklava in town. Arslan is also a Kurd and a Muslim who immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s by way of Turkey.

The halal food corridor begins just south of Interstate 440, stretches down Nolensville Road, over to Thompson Lane and Edmondson Pike and extends to individual restaurants on Bell Road, Hillsboro and Charlotte pikes.

Even though Nashville does not compare to major Muslim population centers like Detroit or Los Angeles, the city is situated in the sort of relatively farm-rich region one where halalfood is readily available. And a dynamic and rapidly growing culinary approach - organic halal - is beginning to emerge, said Shahed Amanullah, founder of Zabihah.com, an Austin, Texas- and London-based Web site that allows users to review and list eateries around the world offering halal foods.

It's more than pork ban

What most people know about Islamic dietary restrictions begins and ends with the prohibition on pork.

But for the nation's estimated 2.3 million to 6.4 million Muslims, who along with other people are concerned about the content of their diet and the impact the production has on the environment, the pursuit of halal food is a matter of health and faith, said Hajj Habib Ghanim Sr., president of the Washington, D.C.-based USA Halal Chamber of Commerce.

It can also be a matter of good business. Consumers already spend an estimated $10 billion worldwide and $300 million in the United States on halal goods each year, Ghanim said.

When Zabihah.com released its first Nashville list of halal eateries in 2002, only one restaurant, Istanbul, appeared. Arslan says there was another establishment - a nearby market - offering halal meats at the time. Now, there are 29 mostly small grocery stores, restaurants, mosques and even a school, Amanullah said.

"Interestingly enough, I don't think that the people using our site are exclusively Muslim," Amanullah said. "We know that food is a great cultural exchange medium. It's the way that a lot of people feel comfortable experiencing something that is not their own.

"In Nashville, what you see is not so much a rapid growth in the number of places listed, it's people posting reviews of the same places that seem to getting more positive over time."

Given the anonymity of the consumer-generated reviews on Zabihah.com, that's not likely because people want to be nice. The reviews are getting better because the businesses are responding to what their customers have had to say about them online, Amanullah said.

Right now, Istanbul has 4.3 out of five stars.

(Janell Ross, Nashville Tennessean, April 29, 2009)

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