By Nick Spennato
His family has been involved with restaurants since they came to America 30 years ago. When they first started in New York, they decided to open more western style restaurants, like pizzerias and fried chicken places. When he started to branch out in 2005, Khalid Mashriqi, now the owner of Shah’s Halal, began with one cart in Richmond Hill, not serving fried chicken or pizza, but traditional middle eastern cuisine with halal preparation. It took some time, but Shah’s Halal eventually made its way into Nassau County. Since the turn of the century, Long Island’s Muslim population has been steadily on the rise, and with it, so has the market for responsibly sourced halal food, like Shah’s.
Today, those Muslims and a number of non-religious consumers support over 130 restaurants with halal offerings, according to Zabihah.com, which aggregates restaurants that follow the practice. Of those 130 restaurants on Long Island, 24 have opened in the past two years. Shah’s Halal alone has grown to four different locations, and is continuing to expand.
Between 2000 and 2010, the number of practicing Muslims on Long Island grew 41 percent, according to city-data.com and the US religion census.
“When we opened our doors in Hicksville the response was just crazy,” Mashriqi said. “Since then we’ve just kept going. Farmingdale, Broadway Mall, New Hyde Park and we were just looking at a new location in Merrick.”
To many, the term halal has become synonymous with Middle Eastern cart food, simple dishes like lamb or chicken served over rice and covered in white sauce, prepared quickly and reasonably priced. To those following the practice, the term refers literally to what is permissible by the faith.
“It’s about the preparation of the meat,” Kazim Hussain, who owns and operates the Desi Fire Grill in Hicksville, said. “In a general sense, it’s about making sure the animal suffers as little as possible, that the meat is blessed and the prayers are said.”
There are other elements to the preparation of halal meats, from the state of the animal prior to the slaughter, to the method in which it is finally killed, to who actually performs the act that determines if the meat is halal(permissible) or haram (forbidden) according to the Halal Food Authority.
While the preparation of halal meats elicits Islam and the middle east, the style of the cuisine doesn’t have to. The Desi Fire Grill serves halal prepared meats in Indian-Mexican fusion dishes ranging from kaati rolls to quesadillas to burgers. People following the halal practice are limited to eating at restaurants that do the same. Kazim Hussain and his family have attempted to expand the options available to them on Long Island.
“We’re one of maybe three, I think there’s one in Selden, Mexican restaurants on Long Island that cook with halal meat. It’s limiting,” Hussain said. “If I want to go to Taco Bell and get a chicken quesadilla, I can’t, it’s not halal. That’s why my family did this, to serve the community.”
In the myriad of hurdles, restaurants must jump to continue to operate, the procurement of permissible meat is one more for the halal restaurant. Halal meat is often more expensive, given the steps required in its production. For the Desi Fire Grill, it means dealing with any one of a number of wholesale services. For Shah’s Halal and their 20 carts and locations, it means using their own supply facility in Jamaica.
With food service being one of Long Island’s most significant and fastest growing industries, increasing almost 25 percent from 2009 to 2014 according to the New York bureau of labor statistics, it’s important that a rapidly growing demographic with dietary concerns be accounted for. This does not, however, mean that the only people enjoying halal cuisine are those who are required to.
Many halal restaurants, including Shah’s Halal and the Desi Fire Grill, have strong patronage from non-muslim diners. The Desi Fire Grill has an almost 50-50 split between people eating for the halal preparation and people eating just for the food, Hussain said.
Similarly, Shah’s Halal has a sizable number of people eating there for the food alone, including a negligible change in business during the Islamic month of Ramadan, notable for its fasting practice, Mashriqi said.
“Our food caters to every background,” Mashriqi said. “We opened at Queens College, it wasn’t just Muslims. You had students who liked to eat there because we have a six dollar platter and they could afford it, and teachers liked to get lunch just because of the quality.”
To many, like Matt Gurrera, who was introduced to halal food by his brother, the religious aspect rarely crosses their mind.
“It’s not really something I would’ve tried before,” Gurrera said. “But it’s not too expensive and the portions are pretty big. That’s why I come here.”
“Ultimately, that’s what we’re about,” Mashriqi said. “We’re a simple menu, good, quality food and an affordable price. There isn’t much more to it than that.”