There is a fabulous Moroccan cafe called La Provence round the corner from my old office, on Grays Inn Road in London, where my Dad would come and take me for lunch sometimes. My Dad’s an observant Muslim and would tend to order a smoked salmon bagel. One day the staff, thinking of my Dad, told me they had halal bacon made from turkey. The world of North African/Levantine pork substitutes is alien to many from Pakistani/South Asian backgrounds. To me it seemed like the tartrex pastes and textured vegetable proteins of 70s English vegetarian cookbooks that bemused Asian Hindus with their rich and often vegan cuisine- a technical solution to a problem that didn’t need fixing.
Like halal wine, which I tried today in the interests of journalistic research, these ersatz foods seems to encapsulate a spiritual and ethical dilemma. (You can hear the result on Radio 4’s Sunday programme at 710am on May 6th and i-player afterwards.)
Is the point of being an observant Muslim to follow the spirit, rather than the letter of the law? Does replicating the haram (forbidden) taste of pig meat break a fundamental tenet of faith? Scarred as I am from being served pork casserole with apple sauce on a play date at the age of 7, I was fascinated by the food experiments of a scientist.
Physicist Alom Shaha opens his intriguing new book, The Young Atheist’s Handbook (out in July) with an account of a thought experiment he conducted as a student: He ate bacon for the first time, after being challenged to do so in the canteen. In the book he rightly focusses on the psychological power of the disgust mechanism in the human mind, and how successfully religious teaching can combine physical effect and mental control.
Asif Choudahry is a young British Muslim who used to work for Blackberry. He got annoyed, as do many teetotallers, not just observant Muslims, at being offered nothing but orange juice or water at social gatherings. He’s now marketing what he’s got accredited as a halal wine. The White, made from Chardonnay grapes, is processed in some secret way. It smells like wine to me. It tastes like wine to me. As I don’t drink and don’t like the taste of wine its appeal is not for me. Kevser Tabak, the name of Choudahry’s brand, claims to be derived from Arabic meaning Spring of Wine – The literal interpretation from Surah 108 in The Quran. It refers to abundance and plenty. According to Massood Kawaza (the President of the UK’s Halal Food Authority) “the surah refers to something which Allah promises the believers to be out of this world”. The surah goes on to say “A heavenly fount of abundance in the hereafter if believers turn to their Lord in prayer and sacrifice”.
To Kawaza the point is Muslims shouldn’t want to mimic alcohol. According to some Islamic teachings, they should even shun gatherings where it’s served. It would be interesting to see the impact if it was lined up at the drinks table at a strict Muslim wedding. But as Choudahry points out, there are plenty of young British Muslims whose want a scientific alternative to another oversweet bottle of fizzy apple. This wine you can cook with. Islam can be de-coupled from ethnic culture. In this case thanks to biochemistry.
At its heart halal wine presents a similar challenge about authentic observation as the concept of the Eruv; a Jewish Orthodox cordon within which certain Sabbath observation rules can be relaxed. There’s a row in St John’s Wood in North London at the moment about plans to establish an Eruv around local streets, for orthodox Jews. If you want to be strictly observant, is the argument of opponents, then be strictly observant.
The difference bewteen the Eruv and halal wine, seems to be social impact. An Eruv is to some Brits, a planning blight, with its wires and poles; forcing an opt out on people who don’t share those religious beliefs. I might pour grape juice or halal wine into a fancy glass to match everyone else’s, but it doesn’t affect them. In any decent sized Middle Eastern food store you can find dozens of Islamised versions of Western foods — cardamom-flavoured Carnation evaporated milk, as much as halal frankfurters and turkey bacon. The market is there.
Perhaps the comparison we should be making for some halal and kosher foods is to prawn cocktail flavoured crisps; tasting nothing like the food it’s nominally imitating, but enjoyed by its fans. And in his attempt to meet a perceived need, Choudahry’s venture shows a welcome entrepreneurial enthusiasm and a most practical appliance of science.