I visited Malaysia twice in 1998 to research peppercorn farms, and as I traveled the countryside, large billboards advertising this or that local restaurant caught my eye.
All of them included the term "halal" in large lettering, which my driver explained indicates that a restaurant's food and practices are approved for Muslims. Being curious, I pressed for more information and it wasn't long before I understood, at least to some degree, that halal is quite similar to kosher.
Since then, I've wanted to bring experts in both kosher and halal traditions onto my radio show, "Mouthful." In early November, I was able to do just that, with Rabbi Stephanie Kramer of Congregation Shomrei Torah and Imam Ali Siddiqui, who is connected to several religious and secular organizations in the North Bay, including Santa Rosa's Muslim Institute for Interfaith Studies and Understanding.
The conversation was all I had hoped for and more. There is a great deal of overlap between the two traditions. Indeed, when a Muslim is unable to find halal-approved foods — they are not readily available in most parts of the United States, in part because stores that offer halal foods risk protests by anti-Muslim factions — they can use kosher-approved foods instead.
Both traditions address the consumption of meat in great detail. Halal traditions begin with the environment and manner in which an animal is raised, which must be thoughtful and humane. When it is time for slaughter, which must be done by a Muslim, requirements again focus on humane treatment. The kill must be as swift as possible and must not be done in the presence of other animals. The knife must be perfectly sharp, without nicks or other flaws that could cause pain. Kosher requirements are similar, although while traditionally the focus has begun with the kill and not before, recently there has been an increasing focus on environmental conditions.
There are differences between halal and kosher, too, of course. In the kosher tradition, one eats only seafood with fins and scales, which excludes shellfish and crustaceans. Halal tradition says that all seafood that comes out of the ocean alive is allowed.
The kosher tradition allows for the consumption of alcohol; the Muslim tradition forbids intoxicating beverages. For a wine to be certified as kosher, the grapes must be harvested and the wine produced by an observant Jew. Because alcohol is forbidden, there obviously is no such thing as halal wine.
Pork is not allowed in either tradition and, according to Imam Siddiqui, this is because pigs have another role. They are not for meat; rather, they help keep the environment clean and healthy.
It is not possible, in a single column, to delve too deeply into the topics of halal and kosher foods, but perhaps I have piqued your interest. If you'd like to hear the conversation with Rabbi Kramer and Imam Siddiqui, visit "Eat This Now" at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com, where you'll find a link to a podcast. I'll also post Imam Siddiqui's delicious recipe for "chickpeas with attitude," as he calls it.