I went to the Halal Food Festival when it opened at 10am. It was in the International Centre on Airport Road a couple weeks ago and entry was free. By the time I left five hours later, yes, five hours later, hundreds of people were waiting in a queue that stretched around two sides of Hall 6. Only a handful of people were being let in at a time.
Going early meant an easily-obtained parking space. People in the many booths inside had time to answer questions without interruptions. I have eaten halal many times, but I’ve never given its specifics more than a passing thought. Here was my chance to learn about it.
Halal is practiced in the Muslim religion. It’s largely the method of slaughtering live animals for food. Hopefully each animal is blessed at the time by “saying the name of God.” It also means no pork, not all cheeses, and no alcohol – not even the teeniest bit in vanilla extract or in cooked, alcohol-laced sauces.
Of course there are controversies among the half-dozen or so organizations in the GTA that certify food as halal. Some of them do accept 0.01% alcohol in vanilla extract and mass machine-slaughter as halal. Some recognize only individual hand-slaughter.
The Halal Food Fest made it convenient for Muslims to choose what to eat. All food served at the festival – and there was a lot of it – was halal. Hand vs machine-slaughtered meats were so labeled.
Halal is also about wholesome food, several vendors said. Displays promoted supposedly healthy foods: vitamins, ginseng, and a cereal called an attention-getting “Holy Crap.” My curiosity led me to spend time at its booth. “C.R.A.P is the acronym for some of its main ingredients: cranberry, raisins, apple and peach,” said Rob MacNeil, the company’s G.M., shown here with Stacey Gowland. They said it was fed to astronauts in space. I argued about the price which I thought a little high: $10 for eight servings. They spooned out a sample and it tasted good. I learned later that it is one of the few things my own niece says she can safely eat – and she loves it. It costs $14 in my neighbourhood. I should have bought it at the festival.
There were halal churros, biryani, beef ribs, Hakka noodles, and sushi. I sampled a lot and they were tasty. A Bacon cheese burger was advertised. It was made of Halal beef bacon. We could buy tickets to sample foods; 20 tickets for $10. Samples cost 1 to 4 tickets, but many samples were free. We could also buy full meals and barbecues. It all tasted good, but most were no different from other foods in Toronto. Alas, the halal poutine was advertised but not available.
Dairy farmers of Canada gave out six free samples of halal cheeses made with a bacterial culture or microbial enzymes, not animal rennet. A nice lady explained about the cheeses. They didn’t taste any different from other cheeses, and I’m a big cheese lover.
Some young fellows tried to convince me to buy halal “beer” which they later indicated was non-alcoholic.
Clothes were on sale. Sun dresses for $5. Conservative abayas, kaftans and hijabs were available at bargain prices too. What were clothes, books and fancy jewellery doing at a food festival! Real estate agents and franchise possibilities were there too.
There were wedding cinemaphotographers, and Western Union for sending money back to the home country. A woman was selling soap she had made herself. Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed of Penwak demonstrated a convenient, newly-designed case for the tooth cleaner used traditionally in many Middle Eastern countries. The anti-bacterial cleanser is a twig from the peelu tree, he said. The case makes it easy to carry the twig in a pocket. No water is needed.
I entered a draw for a free trip for two to Mecca after being assured that non-Muslims could go. Later, alas, I learned that non-Muslims cannot visit there. What a disappointment!
The house of Sofia was selling beautifully-carved wooden screens, antique-type telephones, and a marble Taj Mahal. They said the telephones did work. It was all very interesting.
As the day progressed, the crowds got thicker and thicker. I munched on samples and even ate some yummy barbecued ribs. I listened to some of the seminars and learned that practicing halal can be difficult at times. What do Muslims do when invited for dinner in a non-Muslim home? Should the Muslim ask about the source of the food or be polite and eat what he or she is offered without question?
The festival had a space for prayers but only a handful of people were using it. It seemed that people were more interested in the food. I couldn’t resist the faluda ice cream. Five hours went quickly. I took a lot of pictures. I bought six meat pies from the famous Pie Guyz to enjoy at home.
I’m looking forward to this festival next year. Of course I’ll be going early. And I’m going to stop ignoring the halal section in my local supermarket too. But should I? Please share your halal experience with us below.
Note: Toronto Public Health Department has a website on halal and non-halal foods at: http://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/~facilities/documents/GuidetoHalalFoods.pdf