Restaurants are open before sunrise and late into the night this month to welcome diners for suhoor and iftar, the pre-dawn and post-sunset meals of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islam calendar that Muslims observe with fasting, prayer and community.
Peninsula favorites Zareen's and Arya Steakhouse will hold special events that invite community members to break their fasts together. Behind many of these events are HalalFest and its CEO Ali Malik, who envisions a world where halal choices are available at international chains, and Muslim restaurateurs turn mom-and-pop shops into global businesses. Halal, an Arabic word that means permissible, is often used to refer to foods that one can consume, according to Islamic law. It is commonly applied to meat, which must be slaughtered in a specific fashion to be certified as halal.
HalalFest, founded by Irfan Rydhan as a Bay Area events company, held its first halal food festival in the east bay in 2013. Organizers were overwhelmed by a crowd of more than 10,000 guests — far more than the 2,000 they had anticipated.
Inspired by the endless lines of diners at that first festival, Malik, an investment banker and friend of Rydhan, joined HalalFest and eventually became the company's CEO. Now, HalalFest offers consulting services to independent restaurants, organizes events like Muslim community nights in partnership with local sports teams and promotes halal eateries through programming including Bay Area Halal Restaurant Week and this month's Ramadan activities.
Ramadan, a sacred month, involves the fourth pillar of Islam, sawm. Through abstaining from food and drink from dawn to sunset and limiting negative behaviors, Muslims believe they develop a stronger relationship with Allah. Observers start their days with the pre-dawn meal of suhoor, which provides sustenance for a day of fasting, and iftar, the often communal breaking of the fast just after sunset.
While HalalFest is currently focused on working with small businesses and organizing community events, Malik is confident that the company's work inviting both Muslims and non-Muslims to share meals helps build global awareness around halal. He has seen foods like bubble tea integrate themselves into American diets and culture and believes halal food can become a part of everyday life for an increasing number of Americans.
"We have to do grassroots work first ... (halal) will catch on (like) wildfire," he said.
According to Zareen Khan, owner and chef at Zareen's, HalalFest events provide local Muslims with opportunities to educate others about their diverse cuisines and cultures. The Palo Alto location of Zareen's will host a suhoor night on April 22 that runs until 1 a.m. and will be open until midnight on an ongoing basis.
"Initiatives like HalalFest are important in helping Muslims reach out to the broader community, to our neighbors and friends, and sharing what makes Ramadan special with all of them. ... Ramadan is as much a communal experience as an individual commitment," Khan said.
Malik said that digital resources like the HalalFest Ramadan restaurant schedule help gather people for intimate meals and cultural exchange, and the number of local halal eateries is rapidly expanding. Back in the 1990s, Malik would go to San Francisco to gather with other Muslims on the weekends. Today, there are halal restaurants serving a number of different cuisines across the Bay Area, some of which are not owned or operated by Muslims.
"When people think about halal, they probably automatically think Mediterranean or Arab origins. And it's far from the truth. We have Filipino, we have Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Japanese," he said.
There's also a growing group of foodies obsessed with seeking out the best halal restaurants, as indicated by the Bay Area Halal Foodies Facebook group, which Malik calls an unofficial offshoot of HalalFest (the group's administrator, Abbas Mohamed, is a staff member at HalalFest). The group has around 21,000 members and features discussions about subjects ranging from the Bay Area's best Nashville hot chicken to the opening of a new halal butcher shop.
In Malik's view, the rise of halal foodie culture creates new opportunities for intercultural dialogue, as many Muslims are now trying cuisines for the first time.
"If you have Korean halal or Chinese halal ... you get to meet a lot of different people and understand their culture and their faith," he said.
Malik said that when people share a meal, they let their guards down and can have conversations about difficult topics like religion and politics.
In addition to this opportunity for intercultural exchange, Malik is intrigued by the economic opportunities presented by the increased interest in halal food. A venture capitalist with experience working in mergers and acquisitions pertaining to quick-service restaurants, he's fascinated by Halal Guys, the New York street cart that has become a global franchise with hundreds of locations, many of which are operated by non-Muslims. Malik believes that halal meats are often superior products that consumers will seek out.
Malik hopes that HalalFest can help locally owned restaurants follow this path from street vending to international success. Many of these small restaurant owners are career cooks or chefs who might be unfamiliar with the marketing and business aspects of running a restaurant. Cultural and language barriers might also mean that restaurateurs are dependent on word-of-mouth marketing.
"Mom and Pop, they have an American dream, they want to start their own business," he said. "And I want to make sure that I see that to fruition for them and with them."
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Anthony Shu writes for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.