Finding local restaurants that serve halal food can be daunting.
“I find it’s a pretty difficult task,” says Ohnas Skelly-Ali, a local chef. “There are the obvious places that meet these needs, like donair, shawarma, and falafel shops. There are also local butchers, and any of the cultural grocery stores that provide halal products. Aside from that, it’s slim pickings.”
Halal is an Arabic word meaning “allowed” or “permissible.” Halal eating guidelines, somewhat similar to kosher guidelines, categorically exclude the intake of pork, blood and alcohol. They specify that an animal intended for consumption is to be processed by a Muslim butcher who blesses the animal before slaughtering it – and then drains all the blood prior to butchering.
When Nando’s, the popular chain of chicken restaurants, opened a location in Edmonton in February, some customers were disappointed that it is not halal-certified. Although some Nando’s restaurants do advertise halal options, about 80 per cent worldwide do not.
“At this time, our current Alberta chicken supplier is not able to provide a halal option that meets our global standard while also offering our unique recipe that is followed by each Nando’s restaurant around the world,” says Natalie Harper, a representative for Nando’s. Although it’s not clear how halal chickens could affect the Nando’s recipe, Harper adds that the company “will continue to look at options to provide halal in Alberta in the future.” The difficulty of finding a cost-effective supplier for such a large-scale operation was likely a major factor.”In Alberta, the highest demand is still with the majority of people who don’t eat halal,” Skelly-Ali notes. “Because of its nature, and the process of making food halal, there is a general markup on the food.”
Compare Nando’s to Checkers, a halal pizza place on Whyte Avenue. When Ahmed Farooqui bought the business in 2008, it was a simple pizza place. Although Farooqui says his “whole objective” in buying Checkers was to provide accessible halal fast food to Muslims in the university area, it wasn’t easy. It’s clear that, for Farooqui, his business is also a personal project, an attempt to fill a need.
In 2008, sourcing halal ingredients was a challenge. Farooqui recalls asking a supplier for a list of its halal products and realizing that the representative he was speaking to didn’t know what “halal” meant. Though the market is more diverse these days, he still pays between 30 and 40 per cent more for halal beef and pepperoni than he would for the non-halal equivalents. “I have to be competitive with other pizza shops, so I could not begin to raise the price,” he says. “So we work on a very marginal profit.”
While Farooqui feels that making less profit is worth it for the ability to obey his own conscience and contribute to the Muslim community, a chain restaurant might not be willing to make the same kind of financial sacrifice.
The city’s lack of halal dining options has an impact on a generation of Muslims growing up and making lives in Edmonton with limited opportunities to socialize in public.”The older generation Muslims have just become accustomed to going to their local butcher and cooking at home,” Skelly-Ali says. “But there are young Muslims who enjoy the dining scene, and don’t want to necessarily eat the same kind of food they were brought up on.”
Progress has been made in recent years; Edmonton is now home to Passion de France, one of Canada’s only halal pastry shops, and business at Checkers and other similar establishments is good. Paramount Fine Foods, a chain of Middle Eastern eateries that originated in Ontario, is not only halal-certified, but actually runs its own butcher shop and partners directly with both farmers and slaughterhouses to supply halal products to its restaurants. Paramount opened a location in northwest Edmonton in early January. But halal options are something more restaurants should consider, Skelly-Ali says. He would love to see the day when “a whole population isn’t necessarily being excluded.” She adds: “The restaurants that do provide this service would likely thrive.”
This article appears in the July 2016 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.