You Know Kosher, but Have You Met Halal?

Bryan RJune 25th, 2008
By: Bryan R

Most of us are familiar with kosher foods. Part of the Judaic tradition, kosher foods are prepared under fairly precise standards dating back thousands of years. For example, mammals that are both ruminants, that is those that have an additional stomach called a rumen (such a cow), and have cloven hooves are kosher. Animals like camels and hares* are not kosher because they lack hooves while pigs aren't acceptable because they aren't ruminants. Birds, so long as they are not birds of prey or scavengers, are generally ok although turkeys remained up in the air for some time due to its New World status. And fish are fine so long as they have fins and scales. There's a whole lot more to it, but it would take hours to go through all the details.

Halal, on the other hand, is the Muslim dietary guideline that similarly stipulates what is and isn't permissible. In the Muslim world, Halal can be an all-encompassing term for all behavior. But in the West, it's typically just restricted to dietary matters. My first known introduction to Halal was at one Chef Seattle's highest rated Indian restaurants, Spice Route. Although I knew of Halal, I didn't really know about the details until I dug a little deeper.

At its core, Halal is everything which is considered acceptable as prescribed by the Koran. In terms of food, the Koran is explicit about the forbiddance of pork (much like the Torah). Blood and insects, with the exception of locusts, are not allowed -just as in the Kosher tradition. Given the ancient connections between Islam and Judaism, it's not surprising that the two might have similarities.

Are Clams Halal?
Are Clams Halal?

There are some differences, however. For example, Halal forbids the consumption of alcohol of any kind. Even a white wine sauce could be rejected depending on the strictness of the observer. Also, mammals aren't required to be ruminants which puts camel stew back on the menu. And while Kosher traditions forbid shellfish like clams and shrimp, there's still an active debate amongst Halal scholars about their legal status. Frequently, Sunnis consider most or all fish to be Halal while some Shias believe that only fish with scales are appropriate.

In addition to food types, the slaughtering method is also critically important in the Halal tradition. When slaughtering a bird or mammal, the killing blow must involve cutting the animal's neck with a non-serrated blade in one clean, swift motion. The spinal cord must not be touched and the animal should be fully drained of its blood. The similarities between Halal and Kosher practices are again striking. It's suggested that this method of slaughter is considerably more humane than what typically occurs in a U.S. slaughter houses. There are also other requirements such as which and how many blood vessels must be cut, that the butcher must be sane, and that name of God must be pronounced before each slaughter.

A few foods can be tricky to navigate. For example, many desserts contain pork gelatin, which is naturally disallowed, and MSG, which may be derived from pig fat. Food colorings and vanilla extract often use alcohol as a solvent that usually evaporates during the baking process, but that's no guarantee. And what if your Halal hamburger was handled with tongs that also flipped a pork loin? It's easy to see how things can get complicated.

A Halal Chicken Nugget?
A Halal Chicken Nugget?

Over the last few years, Halal has had a growing presence in our area. With Washington's growing Muslim population, many restaurants are under pressure to display Halal certifications. Even McDonald's had to change their chicken nuggets to become Halal in Dearborn, Michigan and they may have to consider expanding this program to parts beyond. And on the political front, it's now illegal to mislabel a product Halal if it does not meet Islamic dietary standards. Comparable laws have protected Kosher foods for decades.

So next time you're trying a kabab and Kabab Palace, a gyro at Ali Baba on Broadway, some delicious curry at Cedars, or maybe even a McNugget, you may very well be enjoying some Halal cuisine.

*Note: hares are technically not rudiments. However, Leviticus states that hares chew cud, which would make it a rudiment. The theological implications of this inconsistency won't be explored here.

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