"You've got a generation change," said 32-year-old Zubia Tariq. "People who are older eat traditional Pakistani food. We are more diverse, we like fish and chips but we want to see halal fish and chips. We're always querying, 'is this halal?' Here we know every single thing is."
Tariq, a play leader at a nursery in Leicester, was sitting with friends beside a pile of shopping bags filled with sauces and headscarves, on the first day of the capital's inaugural Halal Food Festival, which the organisers say is the largest of its kind in the world.
Founder Imran Kausar, a doctor by trade, said his inspiration for the three-day event at Excel London, came from his struggle to find halal versions of non-south Asian food.
He dubbed the festival "the arrival of the haloodie" or the halal-eating foodie, craving high-end products. From organic meat to the knives to chop it with, even non-alcoholic champagne, the festival is designed to be a haloodie heaven. Aromas from around the world filled the exhibition hall as the smell of sizzling curries mingled with that of French cuisine, an Argentinian barbecue and halal hot dogs.
Tariq was tucking into a "very tasty" burger from Meat and Shake, made with beef from Oxfordshire dry-aged for 35 days, plus turkey bacon. "London's become the gourmet burger capital of Europe but it's lacking something for the halal-eating community," said co-founder Salman Shaikh, who revealed they encouraged non-halal eating friends to try out the best of the rest before perfecting their own method.
A customer asked if the burgers were "stun-free", demonstrating that even at a halal food festival some needed reassurance and highlighting a controversial aspect.
There are two regulators of halal food in the UK, one that says stunning before slaughter is not permissible and another decreeing it is. Animal welfare groups say slaughter without stunning is cruel and this has been used in turn by far-right groups such as the EDL and BNP to attack Muslims.
"The majority of halal meat is stunned so it's no different to what everyone else is eating," said Shaikh, whose store opened in Tooting three weeks ago. "We get loads of non-Muslims coming into our store, women wearing hijabs, women not wearing hijabs."
Most exhibitors were unconcerned about the controversy but wanted to claim their piece of a market destined to grow as the number of Muslims in the UK increases (from 2.7 million in 2011 to 5.6 million in 2030, according to one study). They ranged from large companies such as Cinnabon to people who bake in their kitchen, perhaps hoping to be discovered by buyers from Morrisons, Tesco and Sainsbury's who were present on Friday, seeking out the latest trends and products.
In all more than 100 exhibitors are showcasing products, such as sweets, chocolate and cupcakes on display on at least three stalls, including a pina colada cupcake– non-alcoholic, of course. All these products are either gelatine-free or have non-pork gelatine. There are also lifestyle stalls selling everything from headscarves to holidays.
Visitors could watch demonstrations from a top chef, learn how to make mocktails, or even don an apron in the festival's cookery school.
Looking somewhat terrified awaiting a lesson with Cinnamon Kitchen chef Abdul Yaseen on how to make Delhi chicken curry was Omar Javaid, 30, whose day job involves working in an investment bank. "I don't know what Delhi chicken curry is and I don't usually cook," he said apologetically. "My wife dragged me along."
Luckily there was expert advice at hand from Yaseen: "Make sure your index finger is not under the knife blade."
Although he was making a traditional Indian dish, for Javaid the festival was an opportunity to sample the foods usually denied him. "A lot of my friends go to steak places, the high-end ones. I just won't go because you don't get the [halal] option. I'm hoping this festival will offer a few more options."
The organisers want the festival to become an annual event and to be a date on the foodie calendar, regardless of whether one follows a halal diet out of necessity.
"It's not just for Muslims," said French chef Jean-Christophe Novelli, who is running cookery lessons on Sunday. "It's for people like me who love cooking and love food."
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