Growing up Muslim in the immigrant suburbs of Paris had it challenges for Kamel Saidi. One of those was watching his friends eat traditional French dishes that he could never taste because they were forbidden by Muslim precepts.
"Ever since I was little I saw this. We'd go out to a restaurant and my friends would eat foie gras and magret de canard. But [those dishes]weren't halal, so we were always obliged to eat fish," he says. "I grew up in France, I went to school in France, I consider myself more French than Algerian, and I was always disappointed I couldn't eat French food."
Mr. Saidi, 32, finally had his first taste of both those dishes three years ago, when he and his brother Sofiane, 28, put their money where their taste buds were and opened the first halal restaurant in France to serve traditional French cuisine.
"I thought it was delicious," he says of his first taste of certified halal duck breast, prepared with a crystallized mango sauce.
So do hundreds of hungry French Muslims. Dozens of restaurants have followed in their footsteps. The website paris-hallal.com, dedicated to promoting halal restaurants, lists 250 sit-down places serving only halal meat and no alcohol. As well as traditional Middle Eastern and North African cuisine, they include 26 French restaurants and dozens that serve Thai, Chinese, Italian and other international cuisines.
The rapid growth in halal restaurants in the Paris region is part of a trend that has swept France in the last few years, says Abbas Bendali, president of the market research firm Solis, which studies developments among minority populations. The typical customers are the grandchildren of Muslim immigrants who arrived in France in the 1950s to help rebuild the country after the Second World War. They tend to be cultural rather than religious Muslims and have embraced halal food as their "sign of identity."
"You could see this as a sign that French Muslims are segregating themselves, but it actually shows that they are becoming more integrated," he says. "Their country is France, they want to eat like the rest of France. But at the same time they want to hold on to part of their heritage."
The market for halal products started to grow in the late 1990s, and has "exploded" in the last three years, Mr. Bendali said. His most recent study shows it is increasing by 20 per cent a year and will be worth an estimated €5.5-billion ($7.5 billion) this year.
Mr. Saidi's restaurant, Les Enfants Terribles, is in one of Paris's Muslim neighbourhoods and is full most nights. It has done so well that the brothers opened a second location this spring, in a part of the city with a more mixed population.
Like most non-traditional halal establishments, Les Enfants Terribles does not put its halal designation on its signs or menu. Mr. Saidi says this is because he doesn't want to be seen as part of an exclusive community. He says he always tells non-Muslim customers when they arrive that he does not serve alcohol. Some have left in anger or because they preferred to have wine with their meal. Others "say it's no problem, but make us understand they are not comfortable here," he says.
An even bigger challenge is in replicating traditional French dishes when many of the usual ingredients are forbidden.
"Our goal is to present a dish that is halal but which no French person could tell apart from the dish that he is used to," Mr. Saidi says. "It's not always easy."
He says Les Enfants Terribles will never serve some dishes, such as coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon, because there is no way to replicate the taste without using wine. On the drinks menu, the Saidis have opted for high-quality red, white and sparkling grape juice instead of non-alcoholic wine without any taste.
On the menu, smoked turkey easily stands in for bacon bits in the popular salade de l'ouest. The foie gras, which is usually prepared with cognac or armagnac, and blanquette de veau, which normally has a white-wine-based sauce, were a bit more challenging.
Mr. Saidi says chef Ali Bouaoune tried at least a dozen variations before finding the right combination of spices to replace the alcohol.
"We knew we'd found it when we asked a French friend to try it and he couldn't tell the difference," he says, adding that he is most satisfied when he sees non-Muslim customers leave his restaurant satisfied.
"I feel like I've played a role," he says.
"I give them good food in a nice place and I think I've helped to promote tolerance."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Halal, or licit, meat is prepared according to strict rules spelled out in the Koran. Animals must be healthy when they are slaughtered. The animal must be immobilized to ensure the slaughter is done quickly and that the animal does not suffer. The throat must be cut deeply enough to allow all the blood to drain. Only a Muslim can kill the animal. He must pronounce the name of God during the slaughter.
Pork, blood, any animal that has died naturally or that was fed with products considered impure, such as waste products or other animals, is prohibited. Wine, alcohol and any liquid that causes drunkenness are considered haram, or illicit, and are forbidden. In the strictest interpretation, restaurants or shops cannot be certified halal if they sell a haram product such as wine or pork. However, some mosques in France allow both haram and halal products in the same shop or restaurant as long as the products never touch.
Source: A Votre Service