Anyone who has lived in New York or visited the city is likely familiar with the smells – and especially the tastes – of its beloved halal carts.
And yet, for an entire month of the year, the workers who drive these carts cannot eat their own food during the day.
During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims around the world fast from dawn to dusk. The exact dates are determined by the lunar Islamic calendar, which is a few days shorter than the standard 365-day solar calendar, meaning Ramadan occurs 10 days earlier each year and occurs in all seasons. This year, it is observed from April 2 to May 1.
Abstaining from food and drink, including water, all day is not an easy task for anyone, but those whose livelihood involves serving food may face an added level of difficulty. .
“It can be difficult to have a job on a hot grill, especially when Ramadan is in the summer, in this small space and you fast for 15, 16 or 17 hours,” said Ahmed Ahmed, who worked in a halal. trolley from Everitt Street to DUMBO, Brooklyn, since immigrating to New York five years ago. “But that’s only part of it.”
Originally from Egypt, Ahmed said he would not describe the food he serves as similar to what he would find on the street back home. Indeed, “halal” is not actually a certain kind of food. Although the popularity of these carts has almost made “halal” a synonym for a type of cuisine, it is only an Arabic word describing the foods and meats allowed under Islamic law – just like “kosher” in Judaism.
In these carts, the meat is halal, which means it has been slaughtered in accordance with Islamic protocol emphasizing hygienic and ethical practices.
“It’s a blessing to be able to serve food to people, especially other Muslims looking for halal food in particular,” said Alam Hussain, who runs a cart in Long Island City in Queens and emigrated from Bangladesh 11 years ago.
Despite their strong presence and followers, halal carts are relatively new to New York. While food carts have a long history in the city, halal offerings weren’t history until the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a growing influx of southeastern immigrants Asians and Arabs entered the space of street vendors. As the ethnic makeup of the city changed, so did its offerings on its streets.
For about a century and a half, street vending has been a common entry point into the job market for New York immigrants. Since the mid-1800s, multiple immigrant populations — including Greeks, Italians, and Jews — have ruled the city’s street food scene at different times. More recently it was the Muslim community of New York.
Research from Queens College comparing the demographics of street vendors found that 306 German and Italian immigrants drove street carts in New York City in 1990, compared to none in 2005.
Meanwhile, immigrants from Egypt, Bangladesh and Afghanistan accounted for 69 vendors in New York in 1990, but 563 in 2005.
Halal carts seem to be operated mostly by people from these three countries, but there are also Muslim vendors from several other countries. This also means that each cart offers its own version of popular dishes. The lamb or chicken served is spiced differently from cart to cart. Some include grilled peppers and onions, and others garnish their plates with fries. (There are also plenty of carts that serve other distinct cuisines — like African or Asian food — that just use halal meat.)
“Chicken over rice is the most popular dish in my basket,” Hussain said. “But I also serve samosas.” As a South Asian immigrant, he also offers mint chutney, as well as other items and condiments that reflect the food of his personal background.
Overall, however, one thing remains essential: the legendary white sauce. “It’s yoghurt, mayonnaise, tons of spices. There’s really nothing like it anywhere else. It’s halal cart sauce,” Hussain explained.
At first, however, these halal carts didn’t sell the chicken, rice, and white sauce you’d expect to see today. Halal Guys — probably the best-known cart that started as a small operation in midtown Manhattan and now operates nearly 100 stores worldwide — started as a hot dog stand.
Its founders, Mohamed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka and Abdelbaset Elsayed, all born in Egypt, opened their cart in 1990 in front of the Hilton Hotel on 53rd Street and 6th Avenue. They were selling typical dishes found in other carts at the time: hot dogs. Around this time, New York saw a growing wave of Muslim immigrants, many of whom started working as taxi drivers who would stop at the stand and suggest the three friends sell hot, affordable, tasty and familiar halal meals on thumb.
The history of halal carts, as well as their passionate fans, speaks both to Muslim immigration patterns and the community’s relationship with the city. Yet Muslims lived in New York long before the 1980s, dating all the way back to the 17th century when Dutch merchants colonized Manhattan. Historians also estimate that around 10% to 15% of slaves brought to America from West Africa were Muslim, although many were forced to convert to Christianity.
Today, about 9%, or 800,000, of New Yorkers are Muslim, according to research published by Muslims for American Progress in 2018. That’s a stark number compared to the national figure: Muslims make up just 1% Americans. This means that over 20% of America’s Muslim population lives in New York City alone. While the community has long been a mainstay of New York’s economy and culture, it is also becoming increasingly represented in politics and leadership. Eid-ul-Fitr, a celebration and family holiday to commemorate the end of Ramadan, has been a New York public school holiday since 2015. It will be observed this year on May 2.
Of course, the road to visibility and equality has been strewn with pitfalls. The September 11 attacks in particular cast an often ill-informed and narrow light on American Muslims, especially in New York.
Eraky Badawy, who emigrated from Egypt in 1999 and worked at a halal cart in the financial district near Ground Zero for more than 20 years, says he faced derogatory comments after 2001. “But I have to just being good, you know, that’s all I can do. I feed people and I talk to people. It’s my job and I care about giving people food and kindness.
Badawy’s attitude is common to the entire American Muslim community, and he attributes his values and sense of self to his faith. Even with fasting during Ramadan, he says he wouldn’t necessarily call it difficult. “Hard? Not hard. My eight year old daughter does it! It’s not about being easy or hard. It’s part of our religion and what it teaches us and how it brings people together.”