Halal While Traveling
One of the most exciting and unique parts of travel is tasting novel foods and visiting new restaurants. At times this exciting endeavor can pose difficult challenges for Muslims adhering to a halal diet. Bacon bits, lard, alcohol, gelatin, non-vegetarian broth, and many other ingredients not compliant with a halal lifestyle hide in foods at restaurants from simple pastas and unassuming chef salads to the enticing tiramisu. But all hope should not be lost; with clear communication and proper planning, eating halal while traveling can be a rewarding and entertaining experience.
One way to eat halal while traveling is to visit restaurants that serve only halal food. Finding such restaurants can be a breeze with the website www.Zabihah.com. The website, and its easy-to-navigate app, have compiled a huge database of halal and zabihah restaurants and marketplaces throughout the United States, Canada, and around the world. You’ll also find ratings and reviews from foodies just like you. Keep in mind that not all restaurants appearing on the site are one hundred percent halal, nor are all dishes at all listed restaurants. According to their website, “Because there is no universally agreed-upon definition of halal, we depend on the investigative resources of our readers to verify […] exactly what the establishment considers to be halal.” While the site is an excellent resource, one should not use it as an absolute; patrons should still maintain due diligence in ensuring their meals are up to par.
Sameena Zahurullah, a library clerk from Rockford, Illinois, does her research online but also uses Facebook to find out the best halal places to go because “everybody has been somewhere.” Combining online reviews with word-of-mouth recommendations provides Zahurullah with solid information and confidence that she is making the right decision for her family. At the very least, it points her in the right direction. Sometimes, if she is lucky, she might even have an idea of the entrees she is interested in ordering before walking in the door.
Although frequenting halal restaurants may be the golden standard, they may not exist in certain travel destinations. What is the best way to navigate the menus and communicate with the servers to ensure your meal abides by Islamic standards?
First, be sure to communicate clearly with the server and try to use vocabulary he or she is familiar with. As Muslims enjoy traveling all over the world, they also reside all over the world. This brings hope that the word “halal” may not be as foreign as you think. While the general population may not understand the term “halal,” use this as an opportunity to educate the establishment owner and your server! Simply telling the server the food must be halal is not the best choice, but asking if they have halal options serves as a great introduction.
Tawheeda Saqa, a mother of three from Rockford, Illinois, says when she arrives at a restaurant she clearly instructs the server no alcohol or swine products are to be served under any circumstances. This usually prompts the server to remove the wine menu and point out which dishes should be avoided. After making it clear no pork or wine can be in the meal, most restaurants have a nice selection of vegetarian, fish, and meatless salad items to choose from. But you must also be wary of the cheese (are the enzymes derived from pork?), beans (is bacon fat or lard added?), breads (do they contain l-cysteine derived from human hair?), batter/breading (is it a beer or other alcohol based batter?), and sour cream, soy sauce, and other condiments (do they contain pork gelatin or alcohol?). Also, is there cross-contamination in the kitchen, with fish being fried in the same oil as pork products or veggie burgers being grilled on the same surface as bacon?
When eating at mainstream restaurants, the safest route is to request the food be alcohol-free and vegan. Vegans abstain from eating any living beings or their by-products, meaning anything with animal-based broths, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, gelatin, and lard will be out of the question. Although this may be the best way to ensure a halal meal, it can dramatically limit the selection of food choices available.
Still, when traveling abroad, tasting the food of the locals is not impossible. London, England, is famous for making superb fish and chips. Mexico serves an assortment of vegetarian, flavorful dishes like ceviche, guacamole, pico de gallo, and vegetarian enchiladas. In Italy, enjoy pasta with a simple marinara sauce, vegetarian or seafood risotto, minestrone soup, and gelato. But, of course, if a halal menu is not available, be sure to verify the ingredients and cooking methods. Research the famous dishes of the country you are traveling to in advance and something tasty and halal will surely stand out.
Being an informed consumer is important when eating out. Zahurullah points out, when ordering from restaurants or even navigating the grocery store, it is important to remember most southern food, especially fried foods, tend to be prepared using lard or bacon fat. And when navigating the dessert menu, pie crusts can be made with lard, cheesecakes may have gelatin or vanilla extract containing alcohol, and tiramisu and other desserts may contain alcohol. Reminding your server of your dietary restrictions before ordering again and asking about different ingredients that may be in the food will help you make better decisions. In the end, it all boils down to clear communication and asking questions; do not be shy – that is what your server is there for.
Halal travel and tourism is on the rise worldwide. According to the 2013 State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2013 produced by Thomson Reuters, Muslims spent $137 billion on travel in 2012 and make up 12.5 percent of the global tourism market. Travel agencies around the world have started providing halal experience travel bundles, taking into account more than just food. They include prayer accommodations during travel, avoiding places with alcohol, and some experiences include separate activities for men and women. These travel agencies are based mainly out of England, Singapore, and Malaysia but cater to Americans as well. Even airlines have picked up on the need to cater to their Muslim patrons by providing halal meals on board. While many could use an upgrade (spicy beans, rice, and naan may not be the ideal Muslim meal), it’s reassuring to know you won’t go hungry on American Airlines, KLM, Emirates Airlines, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, and many more airlines, so long as you call 48 hours in advance to request the special meals. By voicing our needs and preferences, more companies and dining establishments will become aware of the halal diet and strive to provide for their customers; they cannot know what Muslims need if Muslims do not speak up.
Eating halal while traveling can be easy with proper preparation and clear communication. People and companies are more aware of the halal diet, but it is still crucial to explain your needs and remain an informed consumer so you know what to look for and what questions to ask. The Muslim market is growing; we must positively ignite it by politely expressing our needs and driving it with our dollars.
Sarene Alsharif’s passion for nutrition and health shows through her research in the field and community service experience supported by her membership to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and master’s of public health.