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Feeding the city while fasting: What Ramadan means to NYC’s halal cart workers

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Noam Galai/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — 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 one entire month of the year, the workers running these carts can’t eat their own food during daylight.

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 cycles throughout all seasons. This year, it is being observed from April 2 to May 1.

Abstaining all day from food and drink, including water, is no easy feat for anyone, but those whose livelihoods involve serving food may face an added level of difficulty.

“It can be hard to have a job over a hot grill, especially when Ramadan is in the summer, in this small space and you’re fasting for 15, 16 or 17 hours,” said Ahmed Ahmed, who has worked at a halal cart off Everitt Street in DUMBO, Brooklyn, since immigrating to New York five years ago. “But that is just part of it.”

Originally from Egypt, Ahmed said he wouldn’t characterize the food he serves as similar to what he’d find on the street back home. Indeed, “halal” is not actually a certain genre of dishes. While the popularity of these carts have nearly caused “halal” to become synonymous with a type of cuisine, it’s just an Arabic word describing permissible foods and meats under Islamic law — much as “kosher” is in Judaism.

At these carts, the meat is halal, meaning it was butchered in line with Islamic protocol underscoring hygienic and ethical practices.

“It’s a blessing to be able to serve people food, especially to fellow Muslims looking for halal food in specific,” 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 followings, halal carts are relatively new in New York. While food carts have a long history in the city, halal offerings were not part of the story until the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a growing influx of South Asian and Arab immigrants entered the street vendor space. As the ethnic composition 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’s immigrants. Since the mid 1800s, several immigrant populations — including Greeks, Italians and Jews — have reigned over the city’s street food scene at different points. Most recently, it’s been New York’s Muslim community.

Research from Queens College, comparing street vendor demographic data, tallied that 306 German and Italian immigrants ran street carts in New York in 1990, compared to none in 2005.

Meanwhile, immigrants from Egypt, Bangladesh and Afghanistan accounted for 69 vendors across New York in 1990, yet 563 in 2005.

Halal carts seem to be operated predominantly by those hailing from these three nations, but there are Muslim vendors from several other countries, too. This also means that each cart offers its own take on the popular dishes. The lamb or chicken served is spiced differently cart to cart. Some include grilled peppers and onions, and others top their plates off with french fries. (There are also many carts that serve other, distinct cuisines — like African or Asian food — that just happen to use halal meat.)

“Chicken over rice is the most popular dish at my cart,” Hussain said. “But I serve samosas, too.” 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.

Across the board, however, one thing remains key: the legendary white sauce. “It’s yogurt, mayonnaise, tons of spices. There’s not really anything like it anywhere else. It’s halal cart sauce,” explained Hussain.

At first, however, these halal carts did not sell the chicken, rice and white sauce you’d expect to see today. Halal Guys — likely the most well-known cart that began as a small operation in midtown Manhattan and now operates almost 100 stores internationally — began as a hot dog stand.

Its founders, Mohamed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka, and Abdelbaset Elsayed, all of whom were born in Egypt, opened their cart in 1990 outside the Hilton hotel on 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue. They sold typical fare found at other carts at the time: hot dogs. During this era, New York saw a rising wave of Muslim immigrants, many of whom began working as cab drivers who’d stop at the stand and suggest that the three friends sell hot, affordable, tasty, familiar halal meals on the go.

The history of halal carts, as well as their passionate fanbases, speaks both to Muslim immigration patterns and to the community’s relationship with the city. Still, Muslims lived in New York well before the 1980s, dating all the way back to the 17th century when Dutch merchants colonized Manhattan. Historians also estimate that about 10% to 15% of slaves brought to America from West Africa were Muslim, although many were coerced to convert to Christianity.

Today, about 9%, or 800,000, of New Yorkers are Muslim, according to researched published by Muslims for American Progress in 2018. It’s a striking number compared to the national figure: Muslims account for just 1% of Americans. This means over 20% of the U.S. Muslim population lives in New York City alone. While the community has long been a pillar of New York’s economy and culture, it is slowly becoming more represented in policies and leadership, too. Eid-ul-Fitr, a celebration all about feasting and family to commemorate the end of Ramadan, has been a New York City public school holiday since 2015. It will be observed this year on May 2.

Of course, the journey for visibility and equality has been one full of obstacles. The Sept. 11 attacks notably shed a light, one that was often misinformed and narrow, on Muslim Americans, especially in New York City.

Eraky Badawy, who emigrated from Egypt in 1999 and has worked at a halal cart in the Financial District close to Ground Zero for over 20 years, says he did face disparaging comments after 2001. “But I just have to be 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 across the Muslim-American community, and he attributes his values and sense of self to his faith. Even with fasting during Ramadan, he says he wouldn’t necessarily classify it as 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.”

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