Halal Kitchens and Kosher Cuisine
Between 2010 and 2016, sales of halal foods in the United States have increased by a third, reaching beyond those with religious dietary restrictions to millennials looking for new eating experiences. Similarly, the demand for kosher foods has grown to support the need for religious dietary requirements and for allergen-free foods that fall into kosher specifications. Due to this demand, both halal and kosher restaurants are becoming more prevalent across the country.
Americans’ longing for more adventurous food options combined with a growing need to adhere to Islamic dietary restrictions has led to a boom in halal restaurants. The number of such establishments has grown from an estimated 200 businesses in 1998 to more than 7,000 today. Part of that might be credited to the spread of The Halal Guys, a franchise that began as a food cart in New York in 1990 and has expanded to 35 storefronts across the country. Some chain restaurants have halal locations, and many independently owned halal restaurants have found success as well.
Yassin Terou, owner of Yassin’s Falafel House in downtown Knoxville, Tenn., explains that “halal” applies to more than food.
“Halal is an Arabic word for something [that is] permitted, something you can do. It’s not only about the food,” he says.
Where food is concerned, halal rules mostly apply to meat. The focus is on slaughtering the animal humanely: a sharp knife must be used, the name of God invoked, and the animal must be healthy and free from suffering. Because the rules mostly regulate how the animal is butchered, rather than the preparation in the restaurant, sourcing is critical for halal restaurants.
“They go to an Islamic organization, and they may ask them to come and inspect their ways,” says Terou, explaining how companies can obtain halal certification. “If it’s a new company, I’ll request a certificate from them. It’s about trust, more than anything. I trust who I buy from.”
That trust comes with a high price tag, though.
“[Halal suppliers] are always more expensive,” Terou says. “They almost cost double.”
If you want to offer halal options at your restaurant but the entire kitchen is not halal, you will need to be careful to establish separate work stations and supplies.
“If you use a knife to cut pork, you can’t use the same knife to cut the halal food. You can touch lamb and beef, but not lamb and pork,” Terou explains. Both pork and alcohol are strictly forbidden for the religion’s devout adherents.
In areas with low Muslim populations, there may not be a huge demand for halal options, but Terou has not found that to be detrimental in relatively homogenous Knoxville. Unfortunately, he has found that preconceptions can cause confusion.
“In general, I would like them to know what halal means,” Terou says. “Some people, they just attack halal foods with no reason.”
As an example, Terou cited the Butterball turkey scandal a few years ago, when many people boycotted the company after learning their turkeys were halal.
“We don’t really advertise it,” Terou says. “We do it because I like it, but 90 percent of my customers are not Muslim. I’ve had several non-Muslim people, when they hear we serve halal, ask about it, and most people like the explanation.”
While there are some similarities between halal and kosher foods – for instance, both codes prohibit pork and have guidelines about how an animal must be slaughtered – there are also many differences. We spoke with Jason Goldstein, owner of Genesis Steakhouse and Wine Bar in Houston to learn more about what it takes to operate a kosher restaurant.
In order to eat kosher, those following Jewish dietary laws, called kashrut, must avoid fish without scales, pork, and shellfish. Most importantly, meat and dairy products must be kept completely separate when preparing food if dairy is to be used at all.
“We do not have any dairy products,” Goldstein says. “Everything is done with non-dairy cream cheese, non-dairy sour cream, lots of substitutes – such as coconut, olive oil, avocado – to make things creamy, tasty, and delicious.”
Much like halal, the kosher dietary laws include some very specific instructions in regard to how animals should be slaughtered for meat.
“No. 1, the kosher killing process is different from just shooting the cow with an air gun,” explains Goldstein. “It has to be slaughtered with a knife, it has to be painless, and the animal has to be calm and relaxed. It may look a little more gruesome, but it is definitely less painful. Once the animal has been killed, it has [to be] checked for ulcers, cancers, imperfections. If an animal has a cut leg, or cancer, or ulcer on the stomach, or any type of defect or sickness at all, regardless of the grade of the cattle, whether it’s choice or prime, the animal is deemed not kosher.”
Kosher dietary laws don’t just apply to meat; fruits and vegetables must be handled carefully as well.
“When it comes to vegetation, a lot of people buy their vegetation, and they just wash it under the sink and serve it to the customer. Well, lo and behold, if you actually take microscopes and take lights you can see tremendous amounts of bugs inside the foliage. Here, when we purchase spinach or asparagus or Brussels sprouts or broccoli, whatever it may be, the kosher supervisor’s job is to triple-wash them to make sure not a single bug is served to the people, because Jews don’t eat bugs. There’s no bugs in our food, and it’s very sanitary, very clean.”
Because of these strict dietary laws, it is difficult for many Jewish people to trust a restaurant that isn’t all Kosher, but only has a kosher section on its menu. How can they be sure that dairy didn’t accidentally come into contact with their food? What if the serving utensils used for their meal were also used to distribute a cream soup? There’s no way of knowing how dedicated or well-trained in kosher laws the kitchen staff is, so many Jewish families prefer to dine at restaurants that serve only kosher food.
“On-premise, we have what we call a mashgiach, and it means kosher supervisor,” Goldstein says. “That kosher supervisor is here from the time that we open until the time that we close. They have access to everything in the kitchen and they lock up all the coolers when they leave to ensure nothing is tampered with.”
On top of the dietary laws, Genesis Steakhouse also follows the Jewish calendar, meaning they are closed on the Sabbath and all Jewish holidays.
“We do not accept money on the Sabbath, which is sundown on Friday to sunset on Saturday, so we are not open on Friday nights,” says Goldstein. “We will do private events and have the food pre-cooked and sitting in warmers before the Sabbath, but no actual cooking is done on the Sabbath. We definitely take a significant financial hit with being closed on Jewish holidays and the Sabbath. That’s about 22 percent of the year. We lose millions of dollars in revenue by not being open those days, but that is the cost of being kosher.”
However, there are times when being kosher can bring in business, as well.
“We can do a party for two to 300 people just because one person is kosher. There’s no [other] business model that can give you that much business from one individual,” Goldstein acknowledges.
Business benefits are not the only ones Goldstein sees; he also enjoys seeing how kosher food brings people together.
“Owning a kosher restaurant is very interesting, because if it is kosher it is also considered halal, so we can have Jewish people that are observant having kosher food, we can have Muslim people observant having the food as well,” says Goldstein. “All one harmonious united nation under one roof, which is something to see if you come here. It really is quite impressive.”