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Similarities abound in halal, kosher customs

Published: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 10, 2012 at 2:39 p.m.

I visited Malaysia twice in 1998 to research peppercorn farms, and as I traveled the countryside, large billboards advertising this or that local restaurant caught my eye.

All of them included the term “halal” in large lettering, which my driver explained indicates that a restaurant's food and practices are approved for Muslims. Being curious, I pressed for more information and it wasn't long before I understood, at least to some degree, that halal is quite similar to kosher.

Since then, I've wanted to bring experts in both kosher and halal traditions onto my radio show, “Mouthful.” In early November, I was able to do just that, with Rabbi Stephanie Kramer of Congregation Shomrei Torah and Imam Ali Siddiqui, who is connected to several religious and secular organizations in the North Bay, including Santa Rosa's Muslim Institute for Interfaith Studies and Understanding.

The conversation was all I had hoped for and more. There is a great deal of overlap between the two traditions. Indeed, when a Muslim is unable to find halal-approved foods — they are not readily available in most parts of the United States, in part because stores that offer halal foods risk protests by anti-Muslim factions — they can use kosher-approved foods instead.

Both traditions address the consumption of meat in great detail. Halal traditions begin with the environment and manner in which an animal is raised, which must be thoughtful and humane. When it is time for slaughter, which must be done by a Muslim, requirements again focus on humane treatment. The kill must be as swift as possible and must not be done in the presence of other animals. The knife must be perfectly sharp, without nicks or other flaws that could cause pain. Kosher requirements are similar, although while traditionally the focus has begun with the kill and not before, recently there has been an increasing focus on environmental conditions.

There are differences between halal and kosher, too, of course. In the kosher tradition, one eats only seafood with fins and scales, which excludes shellfish and crustaceans. Halal tradition says that all seafood that comes out of the ocean alive is allowed.

The kosher tradition allows for the consumption of alcohol; the Muslim tradition forbids intoxicating beverages. For a wine to be certified as kosher, the grapes must be harvested and the wine produced by an observant Jew. Because alcohol is forbidden, there obviously is no such thing as halal wine.

Pork is not allowed in either tradition and, according to Imam Siddiqui, this is because pigs have another role. They are not for meat; rather, they help keep the environment clean and healthy.

It is not possible, in a single column, to delve too deeply into the topics of halal and kosher foods, but perhaps I have piqued your interest. If you'd like to hear the conversation with Rabbi Kramer and Imam Siddiqui, visit “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com, where you'll find a link to a podcast. I'll also post Imam Siddiqui's delicious recipe for “chickpeas with attitude,” as he calls it.

During the eight days of Hanukkah, which this year began on December 8, I think it is safe to say that millions of latkes will be eaten. Volumes have been written on these potato pancakes and there are too many variations to count. I've never tasted one I didn't like. This one is from “Oy To Joy: Recipes From Our Wine Country Kitchens,” a cookbook published by Congregation Shomrei Torah in 2010.

Sweet Potato Latkes

Makes 12 servings

— Mildly-flavored olive oil

2 large eggs

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon ground coriander or chili powder

½ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon ground cayenne

1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and grated

4 green onions, trimmed and minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

— Plain whole milk yogurt, sour cream or creme fraiche, optional toppings

— Chopping cucumber, mint leaves and cilantro, optional garnishes

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Brush 1 large or 2 small baking pans lightly with olive oil.

But the eggs into a large bowl and whisk well. Add the flour, salt, coriander or chili powder, cumin and cayenne and whisk until smooth.

Fold in the grated sweet potatoes, green onions and cilantro.

Use an ice cream scoop to transfer some of the mixture to the baking sheet and flatten it to a 3-inch round pancake. Continue until all 12 latkes have been formed.

Bake until each latke is browned on the underside, about 12 to 14 minutes. Lightly brush the top of each latke with olive oil, turn and bake until cooked through, about 5 minutes more.

Transfer to a platter or individual plates and serve immediately, with toppings and garnishes of choice alongside.

To serve the latkes as appetizers, simply make them smaller.

Unlike most Muslim men I've met, Imam Siddiqui cooks. A lot. And well. During our conversation, he praised the fragrant chicken and rice dish his mother made when he was a boy growing up in Pakistan. Lucky for us all, he now cooks it himself and was happy to share the recipe.

Chicken Pulao

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 large chicken, rinsed and cut into pieces, or 6 medium chicken leg-thigh pieces

— Kosher salt

1 large yellow onion, cut into 8 wedges

12-inch piece ginger, peeled and quartered

4 garlic cloves, peeled

8 bay leaves

2 teaspoons fennel seeds

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

1 teaspoon whole cloves

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

¼ cup coconut oil or mild olive oil

1 large yellow onion, very thinly sliced

2 cups basmati rice, soaked in water for 1 hour and drained

1 teaspoon green cardamom pods

¼ teaspoon ground mace

— Generous pinch saffron threads

¼ cup milk

1 cup whole milk yogurt

1 tomato, thinly sliced, optional

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves

2 tablespoons thinly sliced mint leaves

1 teaspoon ground cumin

¼ to ½ teaspoon ground cayenne, optional

First, prepare the chicken. To do so, put the chicken into a large pot and season very generously with salt. Add the onion wedges, ginger, 4 of the bay leaves, the fennel seeds, half the cloves and half the peppercorns.

Pour in enough water to cover the chicken. Set over medium-high heat and as soon as the water boils, reduce the heat to very low and cover the pot. Simmer for 20 minutes, remove from the heat and let sit for 40 minutes.

Uncover and use tongs to transfer the chicken to a large bowl or plate. Return the cooking liquid to medium heat and simmer until it is reduced to about 6 cups. Strain the liquid into a clean bowl and discard the spices and aromatics.

Set a wide, deep saute pan over medium heat, add the coconut oil or olive oil and the sliced onion and saute until the onion is limp and begins to take on a little color. Add the drained rice and saute for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring all the while. Add the chicken and any juices that have collected, along with the strained stock, the cardamom pods, ground mace and remaining cloves and peppercorns.

When the liquid simmers, reduce the heat, cover the pan and cook for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the saffron threads into a small bowl, pour the milk over them and set aside.

Uncover, check the rice for doneness and, if it is nearly tender, sprinkle the saffron and milk. Cover, remove from the heat and let rest 10 minutes. Check to be certain the rice is fully tender and when it is, fluff it with a fork.

Mix together the yogurt, tomato, if using, cilantro, the mint, ground cumin and cayenne to taste. Taste and season with salt if it tastes a little flat.

Serve immediately, with the yogurt mixture alongside.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts “Mouthful” each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM.

E-mail Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

You'll find her blog, “Eat This Now,” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com

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