Halal foods more widely available
Tahir Anwar has lived in San Jose 23 years and eaten only foods permitted by strict Islamic guidelines. It was not so easy in the beginning. His parents used to order halal (literally "permitted") meat from Stockton and Sacramento.
Anwar's father was the first leader, the imam, of the South Bay Islamic Association. Now Anwar, 28, is the imam. And his observant congregants can buy meat from half a dozen markets in Silicon Valley, dine at more than 30 restaurants, eat at one of the six company cafes at Cisco Systems in San Jose.
They can buy pork-free halal pepperoni pizza and dine at white-tablecloth restaurants.
Halal meat sales have doubled or tripled in the past year at Facciola Meat of Fremont, says John Rothenberg, a buyer at the Bay Area's largest meat distributor. The bigger orders have come from workplaces like Cisco, as well as restaurants and stores, for meat across the board: chicken, lamb, beef, veal and goat.
An estimated 200,000 Muslims live in the Bay Area, says Safaa Ibrahim, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Santa Clara. Last year, about 100,000 attended the three-day community celebration of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. This year's celebration begins Thursday or Friday, depending on when the new moon is sighted, at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. About 100,000 Bay Area residents attend a mosque, but they don't all follow strict halal practices.
It's getting easier, though, because non-Muslim stores -- including many Albertsons supermarkets -- are carrying halal products. "My grocery store just opened a halal meat section," says Ibrahim, who shops at International Food Bazaar in Santa Clara, which is owned by Palestinian Christians.
More Bay Area Muslims are buying halal meat, says Ibrahim, "because it's readily available."
They can also consult www.zabihah.com, which is a kind of Zagat Survey of the American Muslim world. Zabihah.com was founded in 1998 by Shahed Amanullah, who lives in Berkeley but currently is studying in Washington, D.C. (Zabihah means that animals are slaughtered according to Islamic rites.) He started the online guide with 20 or 30 halal restaurants and stores in the Bay Area. Friends gradually added to the site, and now it has gone national with nearly 4,000 restaurants and food stores.
One of the newest entries is San Jose Halal Market. The halal grocery is notched between the Mexican-style Vallarta Seafood and Dr. Quyen Duong's Family & Cosmetic Dentistry in a South Capitol Avenue shopping strip. The store, owned by M. Ismail Chaudhry, sells Petaluma-grown halal chicken, as well as fresh lamb, beef, veal and goat. The freezer case is a United Nations of hot links, beef empanadas, samosas, chicken nuggets, spring rolls, cheese pizza and cotto salami.
Zabihah.com has been so successful that Amanullah is now studying for an MBA so he can expand and, as he says, "monetize" the site.
Some halal rules are similar to those for kosher foods. However, halal is certified not by a central authority but by word of mouth. "You just trust the owner of the store," Anwar says.
In restaurants and at companies like Cisco, "as long as food we're being served is halal, it's fine to eat somewhere that isn't totally halal. Kosher is also permissible. If we can't find halal meats, we are allowed to have kosher. The method of slaughter is quite similar."
The big problem for halal-observant Muslims occurs when they travel. "We can't walk into any Denny's and have a steak," Anwar says. "We go vegetarian on those occasions."
South Africa has a Muslim association that certifies mainstream products like Kellogg's cereals and Kraft cheese. They carry the group's stamp.
There are no equivalent standards in the United States, though you will see some products marked halal or stamped by the manufacturer with a circle H or a circle M. Muslims read ingredients to make sure foods like cereal and cookies contain no animal products.
The zabihah.com Web site requires users to register before submitting reviews, and reviews are monitored. Diners are cautioned: "Please verify the claims yourself if you are unsure." Halal status is described as:
Halal sign in window.
Halal certificate on display.
Owners are known Muslims.
Verbal assurance from staff.
These are phrases that "conform to the lingo of the patron," Amanullah says.
"Some cities have councils that go around issuing certificates," but not in the Bay Area, Amanullah says. However, the California Legislature passed a law in 2002 that makes it illegal to represent non-halal meat as halal.
As with Jews' observance of kosher rules, halal observance varies widely.
"Some Muslims just say a prayer before eating," Ibrahim says.
Another school of thought is that buying meat raised and slaughtered by other "people of the Book" (Christians and Jews) is fine. "I grew up eating kosher meat," Amanullah says. "Some say only meat hand-slaughtered by a Muslim. I try not to get too political."
At Cisco Systems' headquarters in San Jose, Tahir Anwar helped chef Steve Castronovo make the company cafe available to observant Muslims.
"We have a large Muslim population at Cisco," Castronovo says. "They gave us guidelines. The good news for us was, they didn't care how it was cooked, they just wanted halal foods."
And more good news: When the computer networking company introduced halal meals two years ago, the number of employees dining in the company cafe jumped 20 percent.
Castronovo gives his workers a page of halal guidelines with instructions like: "Make sure all protein is stored in meat walk-in on designated halal shelf. NO EXCEPTIONS."
Halal menus are offered three days a week, at about the same price as other entrees. The halal meals have featured tri-tip sandwiches on rosemary focaccia rolls with house-made onion rings; and roasted chicken with apple-peach salsa, jasmine rice and warm baby spinach salad. "I could run chicken piccata without wine and sell it to everybody," Castronovo says, as long as the halal portion was cooked in a separate container.
Previously, Muslims ate mainly at the salad bar, brought their own food or went out to lunch.
"A roasted turkey plate was the first thing we ran, and oh my gosh, there was a line out the door," says Castronovo, a classically French-trained chef who grew up in the Almaden Valley.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, so Cisco suspends the halal meals. But Thursday, Cisco employees can observe the end of Ramadan with chef Surinder Thapar's halal curried goat, turkey kebabs and butter chicken.
Sidebar: Halal dining in Silicon Valley
Shahed Amanullah, founder of zabihah.com, offers his favorites for upscale halal dining in Silicon Valley:
Afghani House, 1103 E. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale. (408) 248-5087. Afghan.
Darda Seafood, 296 Barber Court, Milpitas. (408) 433-5199. Chinese seafood
Fatima, 1132 S. De Anza Blvd., San Jose. (408) 257-3893. Chinese
Kan Zeman, 274 University Ave., Palo Alto. (650) 328-5245. Mediterranean/Middle Eastern
Mirchi Cafe, 40900 Fremont Blvd., Fremont. (510) 623-8500. Italian, Pakistani, fusion.
Tarboosh, 837 Jefferson Ave., Redwood City. (650) 474-2667. Lebanese
(San Jose Mercury News, November 1, 2005)
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