"These things alone he has forbidden to you: What is already dead, blood, the flesh of swine, what has been offered up to other than Allah."
While driving around Houston, you've probably noticed signs for Halal meat markets or Halal delis. You've probably read labels touting that a certain meat is halal or skimmed over articles noting a trend toward more and more people purchasing and consuming halal meat. Unless you're Muslim, though, you probably don't understand all that must be done for food to be called halal.
In Arabic, the word "halal" means permissible. Halal meat is meat that has been slaughtered according to Islamic law, as laid out in the Qu'ran. This particular type of slaughter is called dhabiha, it it requires that an animal's throat be slit swiftly with a sharp blade to ensure as little pain and suffering as possible. While this is being done, the person with the blade says a prayer to Allah, or at the very least invokes the name of Allah to bless the animal and give thanks for the food.
It's a very specific method of killing animals for food--one that also involves draining all the blood and ensuring that no live animals ever see another animal slaughtered. Zain Mohammed, a chemical engineering student at the University of Houston, has made it his mission to demystify halal food for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and in doing so, spread awareness about the health benefits of this unique practice.
In 2013, he started Zain's Halal Reviews, a blog dedicated to trying halal restaurants or specific dishes and reviewing them for others. To date, he's reviewed nearly 100 restaurants and opened Houstonians' eyes about the variety of halal food available in town.
"There's a large muslim population here," Mohammed explains, "and they've introduced halal meat to their non-Muslim friends, so the word has spread now. Halal meat is healthier. It may be a little more expensive, but the health thing is important."
The health thing Mohammed references is the complete draining of blood after an animal is killed. Because the blood could contain harmful toxins and bacteria that can spread once the animal has died, it's considered a more sanitary practice to remove all the blood.
Traditionally, animals raised for halal meat are also taken care of better than animals raised on factory farms. Part of the Islamic law that dictates preparation of meat requires that the animal be treated well during its life and during the slaughtering process. Additionally, other animals should never witness the slaughter or knife sharpening. And that knife should be kept very sharp to ensure as little suffering as possible.
Some point out that there's a debate about the use of stunning on halal ranches. Non-halal ranches will often stun an animal with an electric shock before slaughter. This immobilizes the animal and sometimes will lead to the animal's death if not slaughtered immediately after the stunning. While some argue that this is a more humane way to kill animals, others argue that it causes extra pain and doesn't fall in line with halal rules for slaughter. Some halal ranches practice stunning, while others do not.
Regardless of your personal opinions about halal meat, the fact is it's spreading. More and more businesses are attempting to be inclusive by offering halal meat as an option or switching to halal meat entirely. It's not just Middle Eastern, Asian and Eastern European restaurants serving halal meat anymore.
"In the majority of major cities in America, those are usually the halal restaurants: Indian, Pakistani, Turkish, etc.," Mohammed says. "What's unique about Houston is I can get Chinese food, burgers, steak and even gyros with souvlaki that are all halal."
Mohammed was born in Saudi Arabia and has never eaten any meat other than halal meat for religious reasons. While studying at UH, he realized he had time on his hands when he finished his school work, and he wanted a reason to eat out and tell others about halal food.
"What I review depends on what I'm craving," Mohammed says, "but I often think, 'is there any type of cuisine I haven't had before?' Or I'll pose the question to my readers: Does anyone know a place like this that serves halal? I get notifications about new halal restaurants, then I try them out and determine what they need to improve."
It turns out there's a huge variety of restaurants in Houston that serve halal meat--from burgers to cheesesteaks to Chinese food, Mohammed knows where to get it all.
For burgers, he recommends Stanton's City Bites, which will cook halal meat burgers separate from pork products and non-halal meat upon request. And for cheesesteak? Busy Boy Sandwiches on Hillcroft, which serves traditional Mediterranean food and American classics, all of which are halal.
"There's this misconception that halal is only Indian, Pakistani or Arab," Mohammed says. "I want to show the world that there's more to halal food than curry, kabob or pita bread. I just write the blog for my passion, but if there's anything to come out of it, I want it to raise awareness of how healthy halal food is and how many options Houston has. It shows how diverse the city is."