Early on Friday mornings during Ramadan, Mustafa Nassar, a Miami Lakes carpet salesman, drives to a slaughterhouse on Okeechobee Road to buy 10 lambs and a cow. One at a time, he draws a knife swiftly across their throats in a single motion, reciting words that make the kill lawful in Islam: Bismallah, Allau-akhbar. "In the name of God, God is great."
Nassar, who learned the ritual as a boy in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem, makes sure the blood drains completely from each carcass before it's dressed and the meat cut and packaged. Then he delivers it to Masjid Shamsuddin, a tiny storefront mosque in North Miami Beach, where Una Mohammed-Khan sees that it's distributed to needy Muslim families.
"We're encouraging them this way to eat halal," said Mohammed-Khan, a Trinidadian-born nurse who lives in Miramar.
Halal, the Muslim equivalent of kosher, follows the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed: Animals must be killed in God's name with a sharp knife as painlessly as possible, and all the blood must be drained. Pork, carrion and alcohol are forbidden.
Ten years ago, access to halal meat was so limited in South Florida that hand slaughter or vegetarian meals were among the few ways Muslims here could remain faithful to Islam's dietary laws -- a vital consideration during the holy month of Ramadan, when daily fasts are broken with evening feasts.
"It was a huge problem," said Altaf Ali, the South Florida director for the Council for American Islamic Relations. "You would find a lot of Muslims eating kosher because the resources were so limited."
But local halal options have multiplied along with South Florida's Muslim community, which now counts some 130,000 adherents from the Middle East, South Asia, the Caribbean, North Africa and Latin America.
About 50 area restaurants and grocery stores sell halal items, according to Shahed Amanullah, creator of zabihah.com, a website that reviews halal outlets. Nationwide, the number has grown from just 300 in 1999 to 3,500 today, he said. During Ramadan, which ends Nov. 4, his site claims 4,000 unique users a day.
Miami's Oriental Bakery, founded in 1939, is perhaps South Florida's oldest halal market and eatery.
"We triple our business during Ramadan," said owner Okashah Monem. "They get fussy with their food. They want everything."
Oriental Bakery specializes in lamb and Middle Eastern dishes, but many newer outlets are less traditional.
"Over the last two or three years in particular, there has been demand for halal foods of other types: Mexican, Italian, Philly cheese steak," said zabihah.com's Amanullah. "My cultural food is American cultural food."
Hack's Halal Caribbean in Cooper City carries chicken roti with curry, chicken-fried rice and barbecue chicken. Chen's Halal Chinese Food in North Miami Beach serves Chinese classics such as General Tsao's and sesame chicken. And Ellie's Deli Delight, an Italian restaurant in Pembroke Pines, is famous for its spicy halal fried chicken.
Ellie's owner Ellen Aiello had never heard of halal when she opened her restaurant five years ago. After learning about Muslim dietary laws from a Palestinian friend, she realized why a lot of her customers avoided meat dishes. She began buying halal meat from a Chicago-based distributor, and added halal chicken sandwiches, spaghetti with meatballs and lasagne to her menu. Now she keeps prayer mats in her restaurant, and extends evening hours during Ramadan to accommodate fast-breaking regulars.
"It took a long time to gain this business and earn people's trust," she said.
In a string of strip malls along University Drive in Plantation, a cluster of Muslim-owned businesses make up what regulars call "the Middle Eastern village." Stores with names like Cleopatra Boutique, Babylon Jewelry and Adam Travel post blinking "Happy Ramadan" signs in their windows.
Al-Salam restaurant and grocery store serves as the village hub -- a halal hot spot where customers linger over Turkish coffee, watch Egyptian soap operas and smoke shisha, the cold, flavored tobacco pipes.
In the adjacent shop, women in head scarves browse aisles filled with Saudi Arabian dates, Palestinian olive oil, Morroccan sardines, salty blocks of Middle Eastern cheeses, halal steaks and sausages. Al-Salam boasts a "full-line of Middle Eastern" products, but specializes in Syrian and Lebanese dishes.
"Lamb, beef, veal -- all of it is halal," said owner Maher Almassri, an avuncular figure with a thick mustache and stone-gray eyes who's originally from Nablus, Palestine. Almassri yawned frequently on a recent Friday afternoon as he helped customers and bounced between the store phone and his cellular: "Yes, we have it. You mean the Holy Koran? Yes, we do." He rises before sunrise during Ramadan to pray and eat breakfast, his sole sustenance until sunset, and works from 9 a.m. to midnight, pausing only for an afternoon nap and the five daily prayers.
Ramadan may be a month of fasting, but most Muslims make up for what they miss during the day with multicourse sunset feasts. They traditionally break the fast with a date from Saudi Arabia (home of the prophet and of Islam's holy city, Mecca), followed by soup, a mezze or platter of mixed appetizers, topped off with heavily spiced meat dishes with rice. The coda: pastries so searingly sweet, you wonder how anyone could make something sweeter than sugar.
After sundown one recent Friday at Masjid Shamsuddin in North Miami Beach, more than 100 worshipers removed their shoes, washed their hands and faces in a large sink outside, and followed the imam in prayer before breaking their fast.
Men and women separated by a makeshift wall feasted on barbecue chicken, fried potatoes and pasta, followed by a deluge of desserts: baklava, carrot cake, cookies, chocolates. Soon children were spinning each other around and doing flips on the carpet before surrendering to the inevitable sugar crash, collapsing into their mothers' arms with an explosion of tears.
Mohammed-Khan, who spends Friday afternoons handing out halal meat to needy families, ends her week making sure everyone in the women's section of the mosque has second helpings. Over sweet Egyptian tea with mint, the tiny grandmother of seven talks about the convergence of food and charity during this holy month. One good deed in Ramadan merits 70 times the blessing, she says.
"There's a great blessing in breaking the fast of a fasting person."
A HALAL SAMPLER
Here's where to find the restaurants and markets mentioned in the story:
Al-Salam, 1818 N. University Dr., Plantation; 954-916-6266.
Chen's Halal Chinese Food, 16732 NE Sixth Ave., North Miami Beach; 305-652-6677.
Ellie's Deli Delight,1812 North University Dr., Pembroke Pines; 954-392-0525.
Hack's Halal Caribbean, 9389 Sheridan St., Cooper City; 954-442-4438.
Oriental Bakery & Grocery Co.,1760 SW Third Ave., Miami; 305-854-0501.
(Miami Herald, October 20, 2005)