It truly warmed one’s heart to see My Halal Kitchen: Global Recipes, Cooking Tips, and Lifestyle Inspiration among an elaborate display of newly published cookbooks. Amidst the mandatory works on French and Italian cuisine and the inevitable tomes on gluten-free and vegan fare, was this beautifully laid out and immaculately printed hardcover volume on halal food, with colour photos and easy-to-follow recipes. Especially pleasing was the fact that the recipes found within are not for conventional Muslim foods (Pakistani, Lebanese, Moroccan, etc.) but rather the focus is on North American fare, as well as some popular European, Latin, Korean and Thai dishes.
The author, Yvonne Maffei, is a popular Chicago-based food writer whose blog My Halal Kitchen boasts over 1.2 million followers. Inspired by the blog, her book provides more than 100 recipes that have been modified to suit the halal diet, but without altering the taste too much. Cobb salad, Hawaiian pizza, pulled beef sandwiches, paella, classic meatloaf and spaghetti carbonara are all here. The entries for coq without the vin and penne without the vodka illustrate the halal goal best and provide a moment of hilarity to boot.
Born in Ohio to a Sicilian father and Puerto Rican mother, Maffei describes her food-oriented childhood which included observing grandmothers from both sides of the family working in the kitchen to create their traditional dishes. Her earliest culinary education, however, took place at Ohio University where she studied alongside international students from countries such as Malaysia, Qatar, and South Africa. Through the friendships she developed with these students, she learned to appreciate and cook diverse foods from around the globe.
A half-Sicilian, half-Puerto Rican chef from Chicago serves up popular Western foods with a decidedly halal touch
After becoming Muslim, her focus turned to what can be described as the “halalification” of well-loved foods including tamales, eggs benedict, and shrimp pad thai. By tinkering with foods from a variety of culinary traditions, she proved that halal meals can be full of diverse flavours. An equivalent amount of unsweetened grape juice may be used when a recipe calls for wine, ideally using red grape juice in place of red wine and white grape juice instead of white wine. For bacon she recommends widely available turkey and chicken bacon. Beef strips can also be used. The added advantage of using these alternatives is the lower fat content. And sausages, particularly chorizo, may be replaced with similar deli meats made by Turkish and Lebanese producers.
A particular favourite is the recipe for the delectable croque-monsieur, a baked or fried sandwich that first appeared in 1910 in a Parisian café. This hot sandwich typically contains ham, or salami that is also made with pork. Here the author has offered slices of smoked turkey as a substitute, that goes very well with the traditional co-ingredients Gruyere cheese and béchamel sauce.
Aside from halal cooking, the author advocates for healthy eating habits and using organic ingredients that are locally grown as much as possible. Pre-packaged and low quality food items should be avoided whenever possible, Maffei advises, and has included simple recipes for making yogurt, salad dressings and condiments such as mayonnaise and mustard right at home. The reader should not assume this is because these items are not halal; they are perfectly halal, but would be much healthier if they did not come out of a store-bought bottle.
“Making classical French cuisine halal might seem absolutely absurd to some people, but I challenge them to think outside the box. My alternatives don’t inherently change the nature of the recipes, but make the dishes accessible for people whose dietary requirements prevent them from enjoying the original classics. It’s a way of opening up French cuisine (and all the other cuisines in this book) to a world of people who might not otherwise try them.” — Excerpt from the book
For the same reason, she has provided recipes for making bread, pie crust and pizza dough. As Maffei explains it, “Most store-bought versions of breads, pizza doughs and pie crusts have way too many ingredients, in my opinion. Real bread the world over is only made with a few all-natural ingredients, so why add ones with names we can hardly pronounce or that don’t reveal their true origin?”
Halal cooking, the author firmly believes, elegantly dovetails with holistic living and using locally sourced, organic ingredients. And in the halal tradition, every part of the farm-to-fork cycle has importance. It’s not just what is on your plate that should matter; how it got there and what sources it came from are equally important to know. This makes the cookbook an ideal resource not just for Muslims, but for any home cook searching for delicious and healthy recipes from a variety of culinary traditions.
The final word goes to the author herself, who made a profound observation during an interview with the ultimate foodie website, Epicurious.com: “I used to think food wasn’t political. But what I’m realising is that it’s probably one of the most political statements you can make. What I can do is do my best to say, despite what you may think or what your questions are, I would like to show you something beautiful, something clean, something delicious. It’s not to force my way of cooking or eating on anyone, it’s just to show that Muslims are people too and we love good food.”
The reviewer is a former Dawn member of staff. Her second book, The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth: Personal Stories by Canadian Muslim Women, was recently published by Mawenzi House, Toronto.
My Halal Kitchen: Global Recipes, Cooking Tips, and Lifestyle Inspiration
By Yvonne Maffei
Agate Surrey, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 23rd, 2016