The rise of Britain’s halal foodies

SHAFAQNA - Saema Rangrez is a project manager at a hospital in east London. When she gets home in the evening, the working day continues: Ms Rangrez runs a small catering business, The Baking Tray, and sometimes finds herself toiling in the kitchen past 2am to fulfil her orders. While her mother and siblings are sleeping, Ms Rangrez makes wedding cakes, birthday cakes and giant cupcakes that are 12 inches high; they are one of her most popular confections, “good for celebrations”.

The past few years have witnessed many enterprises born of Britain’s renewed craze for baking, but The Baking Tray is different. It is a fully halal service, and everything that goes into Ms Rangrez’s cakes must be “permissible”, as halal translates, under Islamic law. She ensures there are no animal or insect traces, no alcohol, and nothing in the processing of ingredients that could introduce contamination with these elements. “I’m absolutely thorough,” Ms Rangrez says. “I contact the suppliers to check – some pink cake sprinkles, for example, contain beetle juice [from the carmine food dye].”

The response has been positive: “I’ve been told to set up a shop locally but I’m not that much of a risk taker,” she says. Although she does not feel ready to give up her day job, Ms Rangrez says there is growing demand for halal food. “The market is definitely there.”

A market for halal food does exist – and a number of entrepreneurially minded people are hastening to res­pond. In Britain’s 2011 census, 2.7m people in England and Wales identified themselves as Muslim, according to the Office for National Statistics, compared with a figure of 1.5m in the census a decade earlier. In addition to the increase in numbers, a Muslim middle class is also becoming better established, with education, money and all the concomitant consumer appetites – not least for good food.

It was spotting the potential of this emerging consumer group that led Imran Kausar, who also has a day job, to hold the three-day Halal Food Festival, a consumer food exhibition, in London last September. Visitors were plied with halal fare, from street food and desserts to drinks, and accessories from sharp knives to blending machines and demonstrations by figures such as the French chef Jean Christophe Novelli. “It was an experiment, but we were overwhelmed by the popularity,” Mr Kausar says.

He had found that quality halal food was not as readily available as he would have liked, and launched the festival to bring halal’s best exponents together. The visitors – many of them young couples pushing buggies – sampled waffles, sparkling halal wine (zero alcohol), crepes, burgers, tandoori lamb, salted caramel brownies and more, with some of the longest queues snaking from Americanised stalls such as Big Apple Halal Hot Dogs.

At the “mocktail” bar, bartenders served long drinks with names such as “Haloodie You Do” – a curious mixture of Earl Grey tea, elderflower and marmalade. Such concoctions are reminiscent of attempts by the 19th-century temperance movement to provide delicious alternatives to alcoholic beverages, such as sarsaparilla or dandelion and burdock. Other drinks at the festival included flavoured shaved ice, coconut milk and hand-pressed lemonade. “People were only limited by how much capacity they had in their stomachs,” Mr Kausar adds.

“Haloodie” and “haloodies”, a word play on “foodie”, have been trademarked by Mr Kausar and his business partner Noman Khawaja, and the phrase took off as a Twitter hash tag during the festival. “People referred to themselves as excited haloodies,” says Mr Kausar. “Haloodies” is also now the brand name for a halal food range developed by the partners, which they expect to launch this week on Ocado, the online grocer, and in the Har­rods Food Hall next month. “We were in a unique pos­ition – we knew the [food] buyers and we had the full view of what the customer wanted and we saw the gaps, [such as] halal baby foods, top-end deli foods,” Mr Kausar says.

Haloodies is a partnership Mr Kausar and Mr Khawaja have formed with DB Foods in Poole on the south coast of England, which had previously been running an online delivery service called Halal To Door as part of its larger meat-processing business.

Ben Bayer, chief executive of family-owned DB Foods, says: “We’re the processing part and we have a background in online retail [but] we didn’t necessarily have the marketing skills.” Although the dedicated halal processing site at the plant is “relatively small”, Mr Bayer says it will be “a nice problem to have” if the demand exceeds supply.

It certainly looks promising. “Our conversation with Harrods was very quick,” Mr Kausar says. “There had not been that offering before to take advantage of.” Haloodies will offer premium packaged fresh meats such as chicken, lamb, 4oz burgers and fillets of beef, with plans to expand the range into sirloin and rib-eye. The Halal Food Festival will also return this year in a larger, outdoor London venue. “The market is coming of age, the festival was rightly timed,” Mr Kausar says.

At the four-year-old La Sophia restaurant in London’s Notting Hill, chef-patron Muyad Ali has a firmly halal menu. His fusion cuisine mixes French Mediterranean classics with Palestinian ingredients, in a nod to his homeland. He describes it as “rich with wild ingredients, hundreds of different types of herbs, vegetables, and I use a lot of olive oil”.

La Sophia employs nine people. “My wife Sousan and I run the restaurant – she does back of house, the reservations and [deals with] suppliers,” says Mr Ali. He works 16-hour days, but “we make a good profit – we have three children, and we live in Notting Hill”.

The food at La Sophia attracts a mixture of customers, not all of them Muslim. “We have a lot of French, English and Asian diners – the quality is there,” he insists. But it is not easy to make gutsy French classics such as beef bourguignon or confit de canard and to remain halal. “We avoid using alcohol in our cuisine, and pork products, so we have to avoid things that a lot of chefs can’t work without . . . We have to create our own sausage without red wine. I replace it with a natural black grape juice and put in a lot of herbs and onions and marinate.”

But the reward has been curiosity from his Muslim clientele. “People who eat halal are not even familiar with French cuisine . . . [They] love to travel here, from outside of London just to try something different.” Eventually, he may expand the business as he expects demand to grow.

“The middle class and business people really want good, halal food – and not just Indian or Malaysian: at La Sophia we have the right environment and food.”


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