Muslim gastronomy woes: ‘Halal’ 101

Restaurant patrons often see plastered along the glass window of a diner a logo with the word: “We serve halal-certified foods.”

The phrase is Greek to non-Muslims. What it connotes is the subject of this piece. But before discussing it, allow me to share a tidbit of personal narrative, some may be hilarious, and that will partly explain the inconvenience of a Muslim living in a non-Muslim environment.

One time, after a round of golf, together with the late Congressman Simeon Datumanong, we dined at a restaurant famous for serving chicken dishes. After eating, the Chinese-looking owner who was tipped off of the presence of the congressmen joined us at our table. In his eagerness to impress us, he volunteered the information that one of the secrets to the success of his business which has lasted for decades was that the lard used by them comes from pork.

The poor guy had no idea that we were Muslims and pork including its derivatives is a no-no in Islam. We were dumbfounded. I had been patronizing the eatery for decades confident that they serve unadulterated chicken. I had mixed feelings of anger, regret, and retching. But Congressman Datumanong, the ever the civil gentleman, signaled us not to say a word of reproach over the revelation. He advised the owner to reveal to patrons that fact because there are people whose religion forbids eating pork in whatever form. We left with a heavy heart and full of regret.

Determining which food does not contain pork or its derivatives always confronts Muslims when dining out. When I was doing my post-graduate studies at New York University, I had the same problem.

Luckily one of the food attendants at New York University’s Hayden Hall which serves as our dormitory sensed my predicament and always pointed out to me which food is safe for Muslims to eat.

It is not much of a problem with the food as laid out on the menu because clearly, you can tell which one is pork or not. The problem lies with the ingredients or slivers of pork meat splattered into other foods to make it more palatable. A golf buddy, Bong Monroy, who owns a restaurant advised me to be very careful with the gravy used to appetize the food. He said almost always it contains pork lard to make it “malasa” or tastier. Since then, I shunned away from gravies. The problem gets complicated by the confession on social media by waiters of popular fast foods about their dishes being mixed with pork. Adding to this problem is the additives flooding the market which enhances the taste of foods that more often contain pork ingredients. Very few foods are in their natural taste nowadays having been modified to enrich their savor.

Two terms must be explained to non-Muslims — “haram” and “halal.” Briefly, the former means unIslamic, and committing it is a sin, while the latter means “permissible according to Shari’ah or Islamic Law.” In the food business, “halal” is the “set of standards that determine whether or not a product meets Islamic dietary restrictions.

If a restaurant claims that its food is “halal” it means that the slaughter of its chicken, fowl, cows, etc. for food underwent the ritual prescribed by the Islam religion. Yes, Virginia, there are such arcane rituals.

The government came in to ease this predicament of Muslims. It is requiring restaurants to give notice to the public that the foods they are serving have passed thru the process of examination and that it is certified as “halal” or does not contain pork or any of its byproducts. The National Commission for Muslim Filipinos has a special office regulating the certification of “halal.” As a matter of fact, a special body has been created by the government for this purpose.

(To be continued)

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