This month marks almost two years since Halal Gems launched our first product. Over the last year we’ve reached the top ten on Apple’s App Store in 18 countries with our magazine app, and number one on Google’s Play Store in the UK with our second.
It has been an incredible journey so far, with heady heights and cavernous lows. Here are some thoughts on why I started Halal Gems.
My vision for halal food is that one day, ‘halal’ will indicate the best quality, most ethically produced, fairly traded, wholesome, tayyib food available. This may take years to achieve, but we want Halal Gems to be part of that story.
Michael Pollan’s book In Defence of Food changed my life. It prompted me to think much more about what’s in our food, I became vegetarian for seven months until I could understand where our meat comes from and what it really is. It may sound strange to ask what’s in our meat, but if you remember the UK’s horsemeat crisis, where nobody knew what meat was really in packages labelled with particular animals, consider studies on doner kebabs like this one and keep in mind that not a single food chain rule has changed since this all happened, the question makes more sense.
Being seriously obsessed with food and eating out, I visited around 700 restaurants in the following year. Each one of them taught me something about their supply chain, how they serve their customers’ halal needs and how their businesses work. When it comes to organic ingredients, there were some inspiring stories like Chef Bea Vo at Stax Diner , who has always used organic ingredients and didn’t want to change that when she opened her first halal restaurant in Kingly Court, London. She spent six months creating a local supply chain that could deliver enough organic, free range beef with a high enough standard to satisfy both her own ethical standards and halal standards. Most restaurant owners say they would serve organic or free range food if their customers demanded it. Restaurants are, after all, businesses, that need to satisfy their customers’ needs.
‘Halal’ means different things to different people. Some consider that pre-stunning an animal before slaughter renders the produce non-halal. Some consider pre-stunning essential to the definition of halal. An insightful comment from farm owner Khalil Radwan at Willowbrook Farm, Oxfordshire, was “I’ll answer your question about whether I think stunning is ethical or not, but I just want you to recognise that you’ve asked me about the last few minutes of the animals life, but not the rest of how it lived, like conditions, feed, age, and rearing.” There are so many places in the food chain that we can get better at making standards higher and more ethical, and therefore more ‘halal’.
Many restaurant owners expressed their concern with what ‘halal’ really means, finding the landscape confusing and not sure which set of standards to adhere to. Further along the food chain at the point of eating at a restaurant, some consider that having alcohol served at the restaurant makes the meal non-halal. Some don’t mind. Our philosophy has always been that it’s up to the foodie to decide what standards they want to have. Halal Gems’ job is to provide information, as much transparency as we can get our hands on, and to enable foodies to make the choices they want to make. Each restaurant listed on our website is there for a reason – it has something special about it. Foodies can edit the filters to their own specification, whether that’s a Thai restaurant in Edinburgh that doesn’t serve alcohol, or an organic burger joint in London that has wheelchair access.
Consumer demand is no small thing. The CEO of a slaughterhouse in Canada told me ‘You just tell me how you want the animals raised and how you want them slaughtered. You decide what halal means. I just take instruction’. Similarly, when we demand better standards and higher quality from our restaurants, they are more than happy to provide it. Restauranteurs are masters of their own craft, inventing exciting menus, improving the quality of their meats, adjusting their sauces and cooking methods until they feel they have the chemistry of cooking just right. It’s up to us foodies to work with them to create experiences that are exceptional in a culinary sense, and exceptionally transparent in terms of process and ingredients.
To encourage foodies to share information about the best culinary experiences, we’ve created collections of the best types restaurants. Our new app showcases these great restaurants, and helps foodies find new and exciting dining experiences.