Kosher's Cousin: Halal 

Purveyors of Muslim meats claim a tastier, more-humane product.

Tanjia, like many Muslim-owned restaurants in the East Bay, serves halal lamb. Halal, like "kosher," refers to a specific set of religious dietary practices. But non-Muslim diners may seek halal meat for its other characteristics.

The Arabic word means "lawful" or "permitted" (as opposed to haram, or "forbidden"). A number of verses in the Koran and in the hadith, sayings or stories of the Prophet Muhammad, set out clear rules about halal, also known as zabihah (Islamically slaughtered) meat. Haram products include swine, blood, carrion, and animals that are dead before the butcher handles them.

Zabihah.com, an international online directory of restaurants and markets serving zabihah meat, describes the process: The animal must be slaughtered by "slitting its throat with a very sharp knife to make sure that the three main blood vessels -- but not the spinal cord -- are cut. While cutting the throat of the animal the person has to recite 'Bismillah Allah-u-Akbar.'"

Once dead, the animal is hung by its hind legs and bled completely. Some modern halal butchers stun the animal before slaughtering, but don't kill with a metal bolt to the brain, like many non-halal abattoirs. The cut itself must suffice. "It's a gentle way of killing," says Naime Ayyad, owner of Halal Food Market in Berkeley. A recent German study comparing heart and brain patterns of animals killed by bolt versus knife seems to confirm this claim, but neither animal-rights folks nor halal advocates have had the last word.

There are a number of halal markets in the East Bay, including a couple in Berkeley and a large cluster in Fremont. Halal Food Market's grass-fed beef comes from Harris Ranch; its goat and lamb from a slaughterhouse in Sacramento; and its organic, free-range chickens from Petaluma Poultry. Homoyoun, owner of Pamir Food Mart in Fremont, drives to Stockton twice weekly to buy live lambs, goats, and cattle from small, independent ranches at auction and then has them slaughtered there by Muslim butchers.

Non-Muslims may find zabihah meat attractive for several reasons: Many ranchers raise halal cattle free of the animal by-products fed to factory-farmed cattle, since such products may contain pork blood or meat. Many -- though not all -- halal markets thus end up supporting less-industrial ranching and poultry-raising practices.

The Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, which certifies halal food production in more than twenty countries, swears on its Web site (www.ifanca.org) that "One can easily taste the difference in meat slaughtered while pronouncing the name of Allah and meat slaughtered without pronouncing the name of Allah." Homoyoun concurs that the meat he sells tastes better than regular supermarket meat, but attributes the difference to the fact that industrial slaughterhouses don't bleed the animal immediately after slaughter. "Their meat is smellier," he says.

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