A glass of Pinot Noir with your Halal Biriyani? July 17 2009

Wasima makes this smashing biriyani… the kind that people travel over fifty miles to eat. Juicy, succulent, fresh khashi (goat) with tender kalijira rice, just a hint of zafran, few toasted almonds and lot’s of love….sprinkled to make a sumptuous meal. Take a little bit of lemony-fresh cucumber-tomato salad, some mango chutney… makes your mouth water!

But you know what also opens another dimension of that Biriyani? A great glass of a Syrah, Pinot Noir or a good Meritage.

I had a call from a friend recently, who was invited at our home to dinner; he warned me that they only consumed halal (permissible) meat. This posed a huge quandary for me: halal biriyani with a glass of Pinot? Do I need to change my wine selection??

When I first came to the US, I was totally confused by this concept of halal. Having grown up in a country where this food selection criterion was just never discussed, I didn’t understand, how to adjust to this new world of uncertainty. Am I to assume that everything that’s not halal is Haram (forbidden)?

In Toledo, Ohio, we had a unique Egyptian cleric at our mosque, who at a Sunday sermon told us not to make too big of a deal on this “halal meat”concept; if you can’t find a halal store, just say your prayers before you eat; the origins of the halal concept was really developed from the concern for food safety (very similar to Kosher) and in America, there are laws that keep the food safe, said our Imam. I remember him forbidding us from buying halal meat from a monopolistic meat seller who overcharged us for just putting on this label!

On a differnt incidence, I was shocked when a young couple once called and told us that by putting up lights during the traditional US holiday (Christmas) seasons, we were being “un-Islamic”.

While growing up in a Muslim majority country, our early growth environments were liberal and respectful of all faiths. My father had a simple belief; it’s not the amount of prayers that really make someone religious; it’s their good deeds and humanity (truth, love, caring).

At that same time, I experienced Pujas at my friends homes and remember Christmas parties at our teachers home in Chittagong; I was always taught that all religions are good and people just pray in different forms (just like we like wearing different clothes).

As I have made my home in a country where cultures and religions intermingle like a wonderful “salad bowl” (every item is distinctive, but together they are even more delicious) one always questions, what (rituals) to discard and what to cling on to. One also treads gently on the concept of beliefs versus taboos.

As we grow older, it’s just pointless to provide room for “litmus testing” of what makes us a good person or not. As long as we are not hurting or disrespecting someone, how can one human have the ordained “authority” to provide a litmus test?

Instead of getting all caught up on food labels, I would rather teach my children that clothes, at a fancy department store, sewn by children under a certain age, are haram; or, Hummers, spewing heavy amount of carbon in our environment are more likely to be “haramful” (not just harmful!). Meaningless or destructive chatter (specially about others) has to be qualified as haram. Wasteful spending or delinquency of thought may be considered the same way.

While I ponder about all of this heavy duty stuff, my succulent “Halal” Biriyani beckons; so does my contradictory glass of Pinot, side by side, like a jigsaw puzzle; sometimes difficult to comprehend together, but once you do, the experience: not necessarily sinful but definitely indescribable.


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