One of the marvels of the internet is the way it has given a voice to marginalized eaters and cooks who have found community in niches of Facebook and blogs. From health concerns (gluten-free, celiac, and diabetic) to passionate gadget-users (hi, Instant Pot fanatics!), cooks find their tribe online.
The rise of the Muslim community and its halal cooks may seem, to the non-initiated, as one more niche community, of interest to a select few. But the numbers say otherwise. Muslims are the fastest-growing community in the world, set to make up a quarter of the globe's population within the next two decades.
And if you have even unconscious assumptions about that community, drop them now. The leading blogger in halal food breaks every unfortunate stereotype around Muslim cooking and women, and is a fascinating picture of how halal food is far more than just a niche community — it's a picture of how America itself melts down barriers and creates a new blended reality.
Yvonne Maffei of My Halal Kitchen is the incredibly popular blogger and voice for halal cooking that upends any assumptions about this community. Take her following, just to start: She rivals huge mainstream food brands with her 1.2 million Facebook followers.
And then there's her unexpected background: Yvonne is a Muslim convert from a Puerto Rican-Italian family who is deeply committed to translating her Latino and Italian heritage dishes to her new halal context.
"She's revolutionizing the way people cook halal by bringing in her heritage," says Sameer Sarmast, who hosts halal restaurant review site Sameer's Eats. "She's showing Muslim cooks that they can make more than just kebabs and biryani. Yvonne holds an unparalleled position in the halal food world. And I don't think there's anyone more passionate than her."
Halal food and cooking are as diverse as the Muslim world itself. Immigrants bring their homeland's halal cuisine to a land of unfamiliar grocery stores and ingredients, and converts to Islam learn to adjust to their new community. And much like other communities, Muslims are increasingly exploring and celebrating their distinct food cultures, leading to terms like "Haloodies" for halal gourmands.
Like so many other Muslims in America, Yvonne's story defies both stereotype and assumption: Yvonne is a convert to Islam. She grew up Catholic in Amherst, Ohio, part of a Puerto Rican-Italian family. Her childhood table and cooking heritage were in some ways far from the halal food she now embraces. She remembers sprawling Sunday suppers with her family, eating traditional Puerto Rican pernil (roast pork shoulder) and piles of pasta with her grandmother's famous meat sauce.
"I didn't actually intend to convert," Yvonne says. "But I studied abroad and took a side trip to Morocco, and found it to be really interesting and beautiful. It was the first time I was exposed to Muslim people. Then I came back to Ohio University and started to become a little more interested in who the people were, started hanging out with them and eating with them. The more talked to them and got a better understanding of Islam, the more interested I became."
In 2001, following a long spiritual journey, she converted to Islam. She chose to wear the hijab, and began eating only halal food. This meant, of course, that her relationship with the foods from her childhood changed. Her father wondered if she could ever eat Cuban sandwiches again. Cuban sandwiches, of course, being excessively, and delectably, porky — including ham, roasted pork, and often salami with Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles — are strictly not halal.
The Culinary Challenges of Conversion
Yvonne's mother struggled to avoid the lard in pasteles (a Puerto Rican tamale), and to leave aside the meat in sazón and sofrito for her arroz con habichuelas (rice and beans). Pork, after all, is just a flavor, right? "I said, Mom, there's a piglet on the cover [of the sazón], and Mom insisted, It's just seasoning! It's flavor!" Yvonne says, laughing.
And that was just the Puerto Rican side. Yvonne's Italian family was very concerned by whether or not she could still enjoy chicken cutlets or her grandmother's meat sauce. Naturally there were tense moments and misunderstandings.
"When my family would make things like risotto or soups, I would say Oh no, it has chicken broth, but it's not made with dhabiha (ritually slaughtered) chicken broth! I felt like a jerk for not eating it," says Yvonne. "But they realized, and I realized, how important food is to connecting with people.
This is the paradox of food cultures such as halal; they can divide, but they can also build connection and community, which was part of Yvonne's journey.
The Shared Community and Spirit of Halal
"I bonded with Muslims through food. A good friend of mine [in college] came from Yemen, and going into her household was an experience. I was let into their world, and was so curious about how the women in her family lived. What is the secret? Why do they hold things so sacred?" she says. "And then I met Sudanese, Qatarers, Indonesians, and Palestinians all in the span of a couple of years. And I thought, Wow their food is all halal. It's all different, but carries the same message."
The message of halal goes beyond the basic commandments regarding religiously sanctioned animal butchering and refraining from consuming alcohol in any form. Eating halal is also about eating well, in ways that are both healthful and holy. These messages spoke to Yvonne, and defined her unique style of halal cooking that encourages cooks to know where all their food comes from, and eat in ways that are as nourishing as they are delicious.
Over the years, what began as a personal journey to combine her new faith with the food and culture of her family grew into an enterprise. "Halal is so global! We can take any cuisine and enjoy it. That's what makes me passionate," says Yvonne.
Halal as American Translation
This translation from one culture into another is also connective tissue from her past to her present. "Finding substitutions for those foods I love is me saying, I have respect for how I was raised, for where I come from."
Since her conversion and first blending of her own Puerto Rican-Italian heritage with her newfound faith, Yvonne has developed a mission and a calling to serve the community through halal cooking. She is an old-school blogger (circa 2008) — one of the early wave of food bloggers like 101 Cookbooks and Orangette. She adapted recipes for dishes that traditionally include non-halal ingredients, primarily pork and alcohol, offering this translation to ease others, like her, who want to preserve their culture side by side with their new faith.
Much like her writing and recipes across media outlets, Yvonne's first cookbook is a surprising, innovative, and international approach to halal cuisine. It's an homage to her American, Italian, and Latina roots, but also includes French food (because she loves it). And it has some pretty brilliant hacks for cooking without alcohol. Along with workarounds for not using pork, it's an incredibly useful cookbook for home cooks, Muslim or not, who have diverse communities of friends and loved ones.
Bringing Halal to Walmart
But she doesn't just teach converts how to adapt the foods they love to halal standards. She also has raised awareness and accessibility in mainstream halal availability. The work on her blog brought her work with companies such as Saffron Road — one of the most popular providers of premade halal meals, snacks, and ingredients — for whom she's now a brand ambassador. She was pivotal in making their products more accessible to a broader market in Whole Foods, Target, and even Walmart. In Chicago, the city she now calls home, she worked with the burger joint Epic Burger to incorporate halal meat into their menu, and encouraged different approaches for marketing to a Muslim clientele.
Yvonne works to help ensure that folks who eat halal have a variety of options (as cooks and restaurant-goers), and also to educate non-Muslims on halal basics. "I want to show people what halal is about, and let them enjoy it if they want to," she says. "And to break those myths that are so dangerous."
Halal food is Yvonne's morning, noon, and night. She travels across the globe exploring, talking, and writing about halal food and offering herself up as an example of what a modern, Muslim woman looks and cooks like. And to her, this bricolage of identities is the only way she knows how to be.
"What's authentic to me is, Okay, how did I learn to make this dish? My grandmother added sugar to her [pasta] sauce, and that's how I love it; I don't change it," she says. "I think every recipe that I've done over and over, I have a real connection to, because of a special person who was behind it. It comes from that memory of who taught it to me. And it's more delicious, I think. I can't explain why."
Before Yvonne started her halal cuisine revolution, there wasn't anyone on the scene who looked like her. Now, she's carved out a space for people from across the globe to use food as a way to connect with and learn from each other, and build bridges across differences.