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As a Muslim from Pakistan arriving earlier this spring for a stay in the United States, I was concerned about being able to access halal meat and food.
Where would I find fresh chicken, lamb, goat, beef and veal? At which restaurants could I eat, certain that the meat and other food hasn’t touched pork, which is prohibited by Islamic law?
These are some of the questions any Muslim newcomer would have, especially as the holy month of Ramadan is about to start.
My colleagues and friends told me about one or two restaurants Downtown and in the suburbs, but that did not lessen my anxiety.
As I started to do some exploring, however, I found quite a few resources in and around Pittsburgh for halal meat and food.
What is halal?
Halal is an Arabic word meaning “allowed” or “lawful.” The Qur’anic term halal is that which is permitted and allowed by Allah. The animals must be slaughtered by hand, rather than being held captive and bolt-stunned. Halal butchers recite a special verse as they slaughter the animal called zabiha.
Don’t bescared: Halal and non-halal meats do not taste differently. People like halal meat because it is believed to be healthier. The jugular vein of the animal is cut and the heart keeps on pumping until almost the last drop of blood comes out of the flesh.
There is more halal meat being produced in Pittsburgh than many people might think.
Nema Food Co. and MRG Foods in McKeesport are the leading fresh halal food/meat producers and processors in North America. Situated on the same premises, MRG deals with the slaughtering and processing of animals while Nema produces a variety of foods made of halal meat including hot dogs. The owner of MRG is Mehmat Gurakar, while Nema is owned by Beyhan Nakiboglu.
MRG purchases locally raised animals from farmers and auction centers and slaughters them under the strict Islamic rules. The meat is certified halal at the national level by Islamic authorities and is approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The companies supply meat/food to grocery stores, food markets and restaurants in and around Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
Mr. Gurakar says every single lamb, goat, chicken and cow is slaughtered by hand.
He says that he has to make special arrangements for the holy month of Ramadan, which begins on June 29. During the first two weeks of Ramadan, he sells around 400 lambs and goats per week. Sales slow to 250 to 300 lambs and goats per week during the last two weeks of the holy month.
Nema also sells a variety of “heat and serve” and other ready-made or easy-to-prepare foods.
Halal at restaurants
If you’re a Muslim who prefers to eat out at a restaurant, but worry that you might not be able to eat that American entree, you, too, have more choices than you might think.
According to a website that tracks them, there are more than 40 area restaurants that cater to people who need or just want halal food, which some people seek simply because they like the quality. These restaurants offer halal food in the form of kafta and shish kebab, shish tawook, chicken shawarma, chicken curry, tandoori chicken, barbecue chicken, roast chicken, lamb curry, sandwiches and pizzas.
One of the biggest is Salem’s Market & Grill in the Strip District, but you can find halal food everywhere from the basement of the U.S. Steel Tower, Downtown (at Istanbul Grill) to several places along Smithfield Street, Downtown (Madonna’s and Palmyra, both of which sell Mediterranean food, and the newly opened Curry Leaf Indian Bistro) to the suburbs (Biryani Indian Restaurant in Monroeville).
Last week I had a chance to visit Palmyra authentic Mediterranean Cuisine at 10 Smithfield St., Downtown. After going through the menu with the help of its friendly staff, I decided to have chicken shawarma along with hummus and tabbouleh. It was incomparably delicious. In desserts, I tasted baklava -- and decided to not go anywhere else for desserts.
You can look up eateries in Pittsburgh and around the world at zabihah.com, which bills itself as “the original & world's largest guide to Halal restaurants & markets.”
It‘s the signature website of Halalfire Media, LLC -- a privately-held media company with offices in Austin, Texas, and London -- that was founded in 1998 in California's Silicon Valley by Shahed Amanullah (email@example.com).
Abdullah Salem, manager of Salem’s Market & Grill, says that they have been serving fresh halal meat since 1981. He adds that he brings meat from MRG Foods thrice a week and sells around 60 lambs and 40 goats and “hundreds of kilograms” of chicken.
Salem’s also buys some products from Nema, including beef and chicken hotdogs, chicken patties, bologna and salami.
Istanbul Grill owner Coskun “Josh” Gokalp says he uses meat from MRG and Nema to serve full halal menus at his restaurant, which moved to U.S. Steel Tower from Liberty Avenue. He says he prepares around 40 different appetizers and side dishes and his customers -- including Indians, Pakistanis, Turks and others from Arab countries, but mostly Americans -- love it.
While he serves lots of vegan dishes, his halal meat entrees include lamb gyros, lamb and chicken soute, and meatballs.
Madonna’s owner Mario Moussa says that he buys halal meat from Restaurant Depot, a big wholesaler in the Strip District that sells meat imported from Australia and Syria. “I am offering halal food in the Downtown for the last 16 years.”
At the market
The zabihah.com site lists 17 markets that offer halal meat. These include Salem’s in the Strip as well as Salem’s Halal Meats & Groceries in Oakland, plus places ranging from big Costco to little Health Nut in Beaver.
Halal food can be found all over the region, and you don’t have to be Muslim to enjoy it. Don’t stop exploring and you will find more.
Arshad Dogar -- a reporter from Lahore, Pakistan -- is an Alfred Friendly Press Partners fellow at the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org).