Halal is an Arabic word translated as “permissible” and a term referring to things that have been made permissible by Islamic law that relates to food, dress, finances, actions, etc. In regards to food, halal refers to things that have been made permissible to eat and drink and cooking halal simply means to cook with ingredients that are permissible and avoid anything that is not, even if those ingredients may be a by-product included in a particular food item.
Islamic dietary laws expressly forbid the consumption of alcohol, blood, pork, and carrion, animals of prey such as those with fangs (i.e. snakes) and a few other creatures that aren’t so common in the West. As such, Muslims who follow this are required to abstain from eating these substances, as well as those by-products made from them. Halal cooking, in a broad sense, is food preparation that incorporates these dietary guidelines.
Any cuisine, from Asia to the Americas, is considered halal if it has been prepared according to Islamic dietary guidelines. However, the natural progression of halal cuisine has been through the spread of Islam, since many cultures have their own dietary guidelines or choose not to conform to these restrictions. As a result, countries in the Middle East, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Indian subcontinent where Muslims make up a large percentage of the population boast the greatest variety of readily available halal meals and traditional recipes that are made with all natural and halal ingredients.
Unlike most other dietary customs, halal is governed by different interpretations of Islamic ethics and not religious heritage. Other cuisines evolve through an interplay of cultures and exposure to different customs, but halal requires more creativity. While brushing against other peoples has also influenced halal cooking, halal is also changed from within a culture. As more people convert to Islam, or as Islamic theology states, “revert” to there natural religion, they must adapt the tastes and dishes they were raised with to halal guidelines. This, along with customary culinary development, has lead to an increase in American, Italian, Mexican, and various other types of cuisines adapting their own dishes to Islamic standards. The result is a need for experienced cooks who can take different dishes and recreate them based on halal cooking standards.
Quick Answers to Commonly-Asked Questions
1. What exactly is “halal cooking” ?
Halal cooking is cooking without the use of haram, or impermissible, ingredients according to Islamic dietary guidelines. That means abstaining from the use of alcohol and pork or from things which contain the by-products of those. There are other impressible ingredients such as blood and predatory animals with fangs, but since they aren’t commonly eaten in this part of the world, they are rarely mentioned in discussion surrounding halal cooking.
2. What grocery shopping tips do you have for people who want to cook halal?
All consumers today must take a look at product labels, something Muslims have been doing this for quite a long time when searching for ingredients that may be red flags in terms of their halal factor.
Now more than ever, however, there are products that may seem to have ingredients that are free of pork or alcohol, but are they really good for us? Some ‘halal’ products contain chemicals, artificial dyes and sweeteners and other synthetic elements that simply aren’t good for us. As Muslims, we have the obligation to care for the one body that our Creator gave us by feeding it sound, nutritious and healthy food that is free of impurities. Our food should be halal, but we shouldn’t assume those products marketed to us are also healthy for us.
Today, alhamdullilah, there are halal products that are also healthy for us and convenient, too. I also like to choose products with the least amount of ingredients as well as the most ‘real’ and natural ingredients as possible: real cane sugar, real milk, real sour cream, real vanilla bean, etc. That way I know what I’m getting and it’s easier to determine whether or not it’s a halal option I can take home.
3. I want to cook halal, but many of the recipes I like involve alcohol and other non-halal products. Are there good substitutes I can use?
Use real vanilla beans in cooking just by opening up the pod and scraping it into a recipe if you can’t find the no-alcohol extract. For things like peppermint extract or lemon extract, use real crushed mint leaves or lemon zest, which result in fresher tastes than extracts, anyway.
As far as substitutes for wine or other alcohol, choose real grape (white grape or purple grape) juices or apple juice to substitute. They have the sweetening effect you’re looking for in a dish without any of the alcohol or compromise on taste.
If you really want the extract, Whole Foods Market has a nice variety of no-alcohol extract for baking and cooking.
4. I don’t cook halal, but I want to make a halal meal for my friends. Where am I supposed to get the meat and halal ingredients?
Look for Mediterranean or Middle Eastern markets, but don’t assume the meat is halal just because the butcher tells you so. Ask the owner where the meat comes from and how it is slaughtered. If there is a certification or stamp of approval regarding the authenticity of it being halal, ask to see it.
Typically these types of stores will carry halal-certified ingredients, too, but many mainstream companies are certifying products that you can find in your everyday supermarket or at places like Whole Foods. Check out IFANCA ‘s website (the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America) website at www.ifanca.org for a list of products but be sure to look at the date it was updated, as companies change may change their formulas often and not renew a halal certification.
5. We’re trying to get our college dining services to serve halal options. What are some simple recipes that they can use?
My advice is to keep it simple and healthy using fresh produce and products with as few ingredients as possible and to reach out to vendors and meat suppliers of quality halal poultry and meats.
As an extension of my work blogging and publishing MyHalalKitchen.com, I also train kitchen staff on simple, quick and healthy halal recipes. In fact, one of my favorite projects was with a local school whose entire lunch menu I helped to reform to include quick, healthy and halal recipes that the kids actually like. I am really looking forward to doing that again at another school or institution.
6. Is it easy for a work/school/college cafeteria to start serving halal options?
If they have the desire and the focus to learn what it takes to incorporate halal cooking methods (i.e. no cross-contamination) and to read labels that help detect non-halal ingredients as well as learn about some halal products they can use, I think they can easily start serving halal options in no time.
7. I’m a college student and don’t have much time to cook, or any halal grocery stores nearby. Any tips on how I can still eat halal and healthy?
For one thing, I’m a huge fan of cooking even if it means just cooking for one person- yourself! It doesn’t have to be stressful; in fact, it can be therapeutic and quick. Choose fresh ingredients that have already been cut or make foods that are one-pot meals that you can throw into a crock-pot overnight and wake up to food that is ready to pack in your lunch.
If cooking is not an option at all, try the Saffron Road halal frozen entrees. Most university campuses have a Whole Foods Market nearby where you can find these foods in the freezer section and they can be easily microwaved on campus in a study lounge or cafeteria. They’re not just frozen entrees made halal, but they’re from a socially-responsible company that provides consumers with humanely-raised, vegetarian-fed and antibiotic-free meat, something that a lot of college students care about.
8. Does halal mean it has to be Middle Eastern or South Asian food?
Absolutely not! That’s why I started this site. I come from a background of Sicilian and Puerto Rican heritage where I enjoyed some delicious food growing up. When I became Muslim and chose halal-only food in my lifestyle, I learned to simply make simple substitutions where pork was commonly used (i.e. pork-based pepperoni on pizza) or alcohol was incorporated into my favorite Italian desserts.
Islam has been made easy for us- we simply have to use a little creativity to tweak some recipes we see or read about across cultures and use the abundance of halal options there are in this world. Check out some of the recipes I have for Norwegian, Italian, Mexican and more food from around the world on this site.
9. I’m a college student and looking for quick, easy suhoor ideas that will keep me refreshed enough for exams. Any ideas?
Eggs are the ultimate brain food as long as you eat the yolk and the white parts together. Boil eggs the night before then place the refrigerator to quickly peel at suhoor time. If you have beans and/or meat that is left over from iftar, pair it with the eggs for a protein-packed suhoor that won’t cause your body to crash later on like carbs or other sugars will. If you have a small pan and a little butter or oil, you can make them simply and quickly. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water and eat hydrating fruits like melons while avoiding sugary foods typical of the popular ‘breakfast foods’ found in grocery store aisles.
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