K.C. Perez, the proprietor and head waiter of the Spicy Foods Halal-Chinese restaurant on Hillcroft, is a stout Pakistani who looks a lot like Cheech Marin. He's wearing a black ball cap that says "Dawg House," a tropical rayon shirt and a large yellowish tooth suspended on a gold chain around his neck.
"What should we get for dinner?" I ask him.
"Get the beef chilli dry and the chicken Szechwan rice," he says without much deliberation.
"Is the rice hot?" I ask.
"For you, I will make it extra-hot," he says with a grin. On my first visit, K.C. wasn't sure I would be able to handle the tongue-blistering heat level that the Spicy Foods restaurant is known for.
Halal is the Islamic equivalent of kosher, a religion-based system of food rules that covers everything from what an animal eats to how it is slaughtered. And halal fusion restaurants are one of the newest and most curious food service categories in the United States. Some are pan-Arab, catering to Muslims of all nationalities. Others, like the Spicy Foods Halal-Chinese restaurant, are re-creations of a specific fusion cuisine created in India.
Like Bollywood movies, halal fusion restaurants are supposed to appeal to Indians and Pakistanis, but they have become all the rage among adventurous Americans as well. Movies like Monsoon Wedding and the nearly four-hours-long Lagaan are fascinating to American film buffs because they break all the Hollywood rules. But non-Muslims are attracted to halal fusion cuisine for two specific reasons: Fiery-food fans like the exotic seasonings; and health-conscious Americans are starting to seek out halal restaurants for the "organic meat" they serve.
The "fiery jalapeño burger" at tencafé features a one-third-pound halal hamburger patty covered with raw serrano chile slices and an all-American square of individually wrapped cheese. A thin, green, yogurt-based jalapeño chutney is served on the side along with lettuce and tomato. I coat the top half of the bun with the chutney and add the vegetables. "Warning, this burger is very hot!!!!!!" it says on the menu. Two bites in, and my nose starts running.
My lunch companion orders the "ten chicken sandwich," made with a flattened fillet that's battered, fried and completely covered with bright red Sriracha sauce. The chicken sandwich isn't hot, according to the waitress, it's merely "tangy." So tangy, in fact, that my guest sneezes violently almost as soon as she puts it in her mouth. The menu also lists a Philly-style steak-and-cheese hoagie, a Mediterranean chicken sandwich with garlic mayo and three ordinary-sounding American burgers.
On my first visit to tencafé I tried bakra ke korma, a fabulous slow-cooked Indian goat curry. I also sampled the "mix grill dos" (not to be confused with the "mix grill uno"). Both consist of grilled meats from several different cultures. "Dos" includes a succulent quarter of tandoori chicken with a half-skewer of tandoori chicken cubes; a half-skewer of jujubideh, a Persian chicken kabob seasoned with saffron and lemon; and a full skewer of koobideh, a highly seasoned Persian ground-beef kabob. The restaurant also serves a Greek-style beef shawarma wrap that I have yet to sample and a Texas chicken-fried chicken with rosemary cream gravy that I probably won't get around to trying.
Tencafé describes itself as a fusion restaurant that brings together Persian, Indian, Mediterranean and American dishes. I love the place because it serves the most ferociously seasoned Middle Eastern food I've ever eaten, but the menu touts the food's health benefits: "Halal meat is hand processed from select animals in which machines and commercial processing are not used. The animals sourced for halal meat are not fed hormones of any kind, so you can be assured of receiving healthier, better-tasting meat for your dining experience."
Some Muslims consider kosher meat to be halal as well, but others have much stricter definitions. "The issue of Halal meat has been a bone of contention amongst North American Muslim communities," according to an Islamic information Web site called Sound Vision (www.soundvision.com). The site quotes Ahmad Sakr, professor emeritus of food science and author of Understanding Halal Food and A Muslim Guide to Food Ingredients, who champions a modern definition of halal that rejects the use of hormones and other standard meat industry practices on Muslim religious principles.
In order to fulfill the halal requirement that every animal be blessed before slaughter, some chicken-processing plants have installed tape recorders that play a looped Muslim blessing while chickens whir by on a processing line -- a dubious interpretation of halal rules, according to critics like Sakr. The high-speed chicken blessings do illustrate the American meat industry's practical dilemma. While the United States boasts one of the world's largest meat-packing industries, the demands of halal certification don't fit in with the established methods of mass production. Hence, much of the halal meat consumed in the United States must be imported.
Lately, however, some American beef producers have fixed their sights on the potentially lucrative halal market. Last year, a Saudi-born American named Adnan Aldayel opened the first halal slaughtering and processing plant in the United States in North Dakota. Under the supervision of the Islamic Society of North Dakota, 50 cooperating halal cattle ranchers feed the animals a vegetarian diet with no growth hormones or animal by-products. The meats are sold under the brand name Dakota Halal.
Raising livestock under halal restrictions is similar to raising livestock organically, but with better sales prospects. While the USDA began allowing meat to be certified "organic" in 1999, the agency was so afraid of offending the meat industry that officials made it clear they considered the term meaningless. In announcing the new rules, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said, "Let me be clear about one other thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is 'organic' a value judgment about nutrition or quality."
Between the USDA's ambivalence and the ridiculously high prices, there has never been much demand for organic meats. Halal meats, on the other hand, have a promising future. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in America, and the annual market for halal meat in the United States is already estimated at some $6 billion.
On my first visit to Spicy Foods Halal-Chinese restaurant, I ordered the most famous dish of the Indo-Chinese fusion cuisine, "chicken chilli dry." K.C. looked at me dubiously as he delivered the plate. The dish seemed to contain more chiles than meat. The stir-fried chicken pieces were covered with red chile flecks, tossed with pointy dry chiles and dotted with green wheels of sliced jalapeño.
I had been wanting to try chicken chilli for some time. I shove the whole chiles off to the side and try to eat just the chicken. The first bite is deceptively pain-free. But by the second or third, the heat accumulates and my forehead begins to sweat. Eventually, I accidentally get a chunk of whole chile mixed in with a bite of chicken. The fireworks go off in my mouth and surge through my nervous system. That's okay. From what I've heard, unless it's insanely hot, it simply isn't chicken chilli.
"Is it okay?" the owner asks.
"I don't know, what if I wanted it a little hotter?" I joke, trying to put him at ease.
"Oh, well then," he says with a sigh of relief. "There are two different kinds of chiles in the jars there on the table. You can make it as hot as you want."
"Who eats at this restaurant? Is it mainly Pakistanis?" I ask K.C.
"Indian people, Pakistanis, Indonesians, we all love Chinese food," he says. But when K.C. says Chinese food, he doesn't mean Cantonese or Mandarin. He's referring to the Indo-Chinese food that is wildly popular in Bombay and other parts of India.
Indians and non-Indians agree that the best thing to get at Spicy Foods is chicken, beef or shrimp in the chilli dry style. The meat isn't really dry, but sautéed with onions, garlic and a ton of chiles. The dry designation is meant to differentiate it from the dishes that are served swimming in sauce. Meat with chilli vegetables, for instance, though still hot, is drenched in thick brown cornstarch sauce; the chicken, beef and shrimp labeled Mongolian and shashlik are served in a fiery sauce that's bright red and way too sweet. Chicken Szechwan rice is stir-fried rice tinted brown with chiles.
I imagine a Halal-Chinese restaurant in Houston has the same sort of nostalgic appeal to the Indian and Pakistani communities here that the Tex-Mex joints in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi must have for the Texans stationed over there. And no doubt there are a few Arabs who have learned to love Tex-Mex, too.
After several visits to Spicy Foods Halal-Chinese restaurant, I am quite taken with the food. But I am disappointed by the drink selection: canned soda or water. No doubt Tex-Mex restaurants in Arab countries have the same problem: Muslim discrimination against beer drinkers.
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But today, I've hit upon a solution. If the beer can't come to the spicy halal food, then the spicy halal food must come to the beer.
"Hey, K.C.," I say. "Make that order to go."
"The Future of Fusion" looked at five Houston fusion cuisines in an attempt to understand what the foods say about the cultures that created them. The complete series can be found online and will be presented at an academic panel titled "Global Food? Fusion, Creolization and Hybridity in Culinary Culture" at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association in Houston this November.