The market for halal food is expanding rapidly. But where some see opportunity, other see an attempt to reduce religious faith to a marketing buzzword.
Sameer Sarmast’s adventurous appetite long ago moved beyond his mother’s South Asian cooking. He likes spicy enchiladas, Jamaican jerk chicken, Texas-style barbeque, and Philly cheesesteak sandwiches.
But one thing hasn’t changed. He still keeps to the dietary guidelines observed by his Muslim family, which, among other things, forbid alcohol and pork, and require the prayerful slaughter of animals. And while finding foods certified as halal (translated to “permitted”) once required a trip to specialty grocers in Muslim-majority neighborhoods, many of these foods now can be found from Maine to Hawaii.
“The thing about halal is, you can cater to any demographic,” Sarmast says. “It can be halal Mexican, halal Chinese, halal Greek. If you cater to different people, different cuisines, you’ll attract a crowd.”
Sarmast is a Muslim of Indian descent, and he’s in the vanguard of a group of social influencers who are expanding that crowd. Through popular blogs, videos, and social media, these Muslim Americans are trying to bring halal away from just the food truck, street vendor’s cart, and faith-led kitchen. These new halal foodies, or self-described “haloodies,” have contributed to a boom that is attracting non-Muslims to halal foods in their favorite restaurants and in their homes. It’s also leading some Muslims to question whether the essence of the practice is being lost in the process.
“Halal is not just a food cart,” says Sarmast, who hosts Sameer’s Eats, a video blog where tens of thousands of people watch him visit New York-area eateries to sample pizza, soul food, and even bacon made from beef or turkey. “Now, non-Muslims are saying, ‘Wow, I gotta get a piece of that burger.’”
Besides Sameer’s Eats, other popular halal food blogs include Amanda’s Plate by Seattle’s Amanda Saab; My Halal Kitchen by Chicago’s Yvonne Maffei; Zabihah by Washington, D.C.’s Shahed Amanullah; and Chicago-based Malika Ameen’s eponymous site. These sites provide restaurant and food reviews, recipes, and suggest substitute ingredients that will make an otherwise “haram,” or forbidden, food halal.
The practice requires that animals be slaughtered by a specially trained and certified practicing Muslim, who must recite the name of Allah before making a single cut across the animal’s throat. Besides the ban on alcohol and pork, Muslims trying to eat only halal foods must avoid gelatin, enzymes, emulsifiers, and some flavorings if they can’t be certain their origins are halal. Animal antibiotics and hormones are also out. Genetically modified foods and ingredients are generally acceptable if engineered from halal organisms, but not if animals suffered in their making.
Many Muslims consider eating halal essential in their relationship with God.
“There is sacrifice, intention, and consciousness” to halal foods, says Maffei, who writes My Halal Kitchen from Chicago and Turkey, and published a cookbook by the same name in 2016. “The process is very intentional and is dedicated to God. It means we can feel good about what we are eating.”