Halal rising: Muslim food marks its UK embrace with a stadium celebration

Vendors and diners at the World Halal food festival agree the industry is booming with good reason

“I don’t think there’s anything political or any other motivations to serving halal food. Simply put, why wouldn’t you want everyone eating your food?” said Tristan Clough, the co-founder of the fried chicken restaurant Coqfighter. He was one of the several dozen food vendors at the World Halal food festival being held at the London Stadium in Stratford on Saturday.

The event is being held 10 years on from the first halal-centric food festival that was launched in the capital. In the years since, the availability and acceptance of halal food has increased hugely. Finding halal meat in a supermarket is almost a given and the types of cuisines that are available to halal consumers continues to broaden. There are also signs that non-Muslims are seeking out halal food, especially meat, while some of the fastest growing food chains in the UK are Muslim-owned.

“About five to 10 years ago, there was a massive stigma against halal food,” said Farhan Afzal, 36, who was visiting the festival from Birmingham. “Now people are accepting and embracing it, they’re doing their research and theres’s been a shift in opinion.

“Quite a lot of my friends who are non-halal [have] said when buying and cooking halal meat compared with non-halal meat you can see it’s a lot fresher,” Afzal added. “The taste is a lot different as well. They prefer it.”

Siddiq Iqyaseen at his Halal German Sausage stall at the Halal World food festival.
Siddiq Iqyaseen at his Halal German Sausage stall at the Halal World food festival. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Myanara Wander, 23, is non-Muslim but said she “would prefer to eat somewhere that serves halal” if she was given a choice. “I’ve noticed the meat is a lot cleaner which is a testament to the way it is handled,” she said. “I’ve also noticed that halal meat tends to be larger compared with non-halal meat.”

Halal, which roughly translates to permissible in Arabic, are foods that are not forbidden according to Islamic law. Foods containing alcohol and pork, for example, are not halal. For meat to be certified halal, animals must be alive and healthy at the time of slaughter, killed by hand and have all blood drained from the carcass.

Nationally, the number of Muslims in the UK has increased by more than 1 million people in the past 10 years. Census data from 2021 shows that 6.5% of the UK population is Muslim, almost 3.9 million people, up from 4.8% and 2.7 million people in 2011. At the same time, Muslim-owned food chains have expanded rapidly. German Doner Kebab, which is owned by Athif and Asim Sarwar, brothers of the Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, has grown from 71 restaurants at the end of 2020 to 146 by the end of 2022, according to accounts from the chain’s parent company, Hero Brands, on Companies House.

Archie’s, which first opened on Manchester’s Oxford Road and proudly advertises itself as halal, has become a local favourite and is steadily expanding to other cities including Leeds and Liverpool. Among the celebrities who have visited the burger restaurant, according to the owners, are Floyd Mayweather Jr, Conor McGregor, Ne-Yo, the Game, Kevin Hart and Rita Ora.

A chef at the World Halal food festival at the London Stadium.
A chef at the World Halal food festival at the London Stadium. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Not everywhere has a bounty of halal food options, however. Seema Afzal, 33, who grew up in Edinburgh and runs the food blog PeckishFoodJunkee, said: “There is a massive difference in Scotland. The halal industry is getting bigger there but nothing compared with the scale elsewhere. It’s more burgers than anything, it’s a struggle to get other types of cuisines.”

Saba Ali moved to London from Scotland eight years ago. “We were so surprised when we moved down here and there was a halal butcher desk in our local Tesco,” Ali said. “You wouldn’t get that in Scotland.”

Amani Al-Sitrawi, 42, and Amir Sharif, 43, run Amani’s Kitchen. As well as attending food markets, they also cater to corporate clients. “They want you to tick the box if your food is halal or gluten-free to make sure their food caters to all their employees,” said Al-Sitrawi.

“Throughout 2022 and 2023, the variety of companies that we cover in London is huge. It’s everything from simple agencies all to way to multimillion-pound companies. We supply them with lunches and special dinners, sometimes catering for up to 700 people,” said Al-Sitrawi.

Diners share food with a police officier at the World Halal food festival.
Diners share food with a police officier at the World Halal food festival. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Even in Westminster, halal and kosher food options were only served for the first time in 2021. While the stigma around halal is fading, some still remains. Earlier this year, Philip Davies, the Conservative MP for Shipley, told the Commons: “Some people particularly want to buy halal and kosher meat and some people particularly want to avoid buying halal and kosher meat.”

Some animal rights campaigners have expressed concern about the exceptions halal and kosher meats have from the stunning of animals, but the RSPCA charity says about 95% of animals slaughtered in the UK for halal are stunned first.

Muslim consumers eat more meat than non-Muslims, according to Awal Fuseini, the halal sector manager at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.Muslims spend almost £30 on meat in a week while the general population will spend about £12,” he said.

A report from the AHDB found that Muslims accounted for an estimated 20% of lamb consumption in England alone and that more than 60% of halal consumers eat lamb weekly, compared with just 6% of the general UK population.

The festival, which served food ranging from German sausage to Korean fried chicken, reflects the rising salience of halal food, says Saba Ali. “Only in the past couple of years are these events happening,” she said. “The world is much more connected and globalised. Everyone is aware of other cultures and religions, it’s become a lot more accessible.”


Sammy Gecsoyler

The GuardianTramp

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