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Meet New York’s Most Devoted Butchers

by Tasbeeh Herwees

October 3, 2014
Russell Khan of Honest Chops

A few years ago, Russell Khan made a decision to commit to eating zabiha meat. “Zabiha” is the Arabic expression used to describe meat that has been slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law; a zabiha slaughtering is what makes meat halal, or permissible within Islam. Khan, a self-described foodie and a devout Muslim, found that the religious commitment limited his dining options drastically. Suddenly, large portions of the restaurant menu were off-limits: New York strips, thick rib-eye steaks, filet mignons.

“I go out to eat and I’m not able to eat these things because no one is serving these types of cuts in [halal] restaurants,” Khan says. “You can go to a kosher place and get meats and cuts like this, but you typically wouldn’t be able to go anywhere else.”

Khan is talking about Manhattan, where halal carts—those chicken-and-rice kiosks made famous by the Halal Guys—and halal restaurants are ubiquitous. But Muslims like Khan (there are an estimated 40,000 of them in Manhattan alone) had few places to go for fresh halal meat, and fewer sources for specialty cuts like brisket and rib-eye steaks. Worse, meat that was labeled “halal” didn’t always qualify as halal; adherence to the Islamic ritual of slaughter was unsupervised and purveyors sourced their meat from factory farms where animals were mechanically slaughtered.

“It became clear that, rather than just opening up a meat store, we needed to shift our attention towards doing something that really started to raise awareness of what halal actually was,” said Imam Khalid Latif, the Muslim Chaplain at the Islamic Center at New York University.

A halal chicken from Honest Chops

Five months ago, Latif and two other friends—Anas Hassan and Bassam Tariq— founded Honest Chops, a whole-animal halal butchery in the East Village. In their “Honest-to-God” guarantee, the owners promise customers that all their meat is grass-fed, hormone-free, and halal.

The word “halal” is not specific to dietary restrictions, although that’s the context in which it’s regularly deployed. For some Muslims, halal refers to food that is free of pork, pork by-products, or alcohol. Other Muslims employ a stricter definition, requiring that all animals be manually slaughtered at the neck, with an invocation of God’s name. This latter definition is what the zabiha label refers to, and it’s the definition that Latif and his cohorts uphold at Honest Chops.

But there is a second dimension to their definition of halal. They also required that the meat is tayyib, which means that the animal it came from must have been treated compassionately in life.

“We look at the raising of the animal, what it’s being fed, how it’s being treated—really, that the rights of the animal are being honored,” Latif says.

These past few weeks, the workers at Honest Chops have been busy preparing for their first udhiya, the ritual slaughter that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God. The story appears in all three Abrahamic religions, though the details may differ. Every year, toward the end of the Islamic lunar calendar, Muslims celebrate Abraham’s demonstration of faith through an observation of Eid Al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice that falls on October 4 this year. For those who have the money, this often entails the slaughter of a lamb or sheep, and a donation of a portion of the meat to charity.

On the Honest Chops’ website, Muslims could purchase an animal of their own for the Eid slaughter and donate a portion of the meat to local families in need. Muslim-Americans, however, are accustomed to being able to choose from a variety of unlimited meats. But Honest Chops’ strict standards restrict the range and number of animals they have to choose from. In fact, at the moment, Honest Chops only stocks beef and chicken, because they haven’t found a lamb supplier that meets their requirements for animal treatment.

“I understand peoples’ frustrations because they’ve come to expect exactly what they want, right away,” Tariq says. “That’s not the way it works with us. Animals are not created on-demand.”

This is what makes Honest Chops so different from your average halal butcher shop. Although many halal butchers observe and facilitate the slaughter of the animals they sell, very few can say with certainty how those animals were treated before they got there. Farms move the animals alive and full-grown to halal slaughterhouses, and those slaughterhouses sell the meat to butcher shops. This indirect process makes it difficult to ensure the meat is coming from places where the animals are treated humanely. 

“They’re mass-producing these chickens and animals to meet the demands of the public,” Khan says. “It’s having a serious impact on the animal’s health and at the end of the day, these are things we’re putting into our bodies.”

For so long, having an animal slaughtered by hand in the name of God was enough to qualify its meat as halal for many American Muslims. First-generation immigrants arrived to the United States with no halal options at all and turned to other, more established religious institutions for alternatives.

“When my parents emigrated from Pakistan in the 1970s... they would drive far distances to buy meat that was kosher to just be able to meet the requirements that they felt they were supposed to from a religious perspective,” Latif says. A 2008 market study showed that Muslims still accounted for 16 percent of the sales of kosher food, or food that is prepared according to Jewish dietary laws.

As the Muslim-American community grew, so did the U.S. halal industry. Halal butcher shops now operate in almost every major American city, though they have been slow to adopt a more comprehensive definition of halal. Religious scholars like Latif, however, are reaching out to the community to introduce a deeper conceptual understanding of halal, one that goes beyond the ritual slaughter.

“In Islam, so much of spirituality is tied to what one consumes,” Latif says. “It necessitates understanding how the physical treatment of these animals has metaphysical implications to the consumer.”

Established for less than a year, Honest Chops has already built up a respectable reputation in the neighborhood. On Yelp, the store has a perfect 5-star rating with 21 reviews. But the people who frequent the shop most often aren’t Muslim. “What’s quite surprising is that 80 percent of our customer base in-store is actually non-Muslim,” Tariq says.

He maintains that many of their new customers have never interacted with a Muslim or with Islam before. And though most New Yorkers are familiar with the word “halal” through those chicken-and-rice carts, they’re not always clear on the definition.

“They see there’s no pork in the store and that starts a conversation with a lot of people,” Khan says.

Media attention has attracted investors and potential franchisers from all over the U.S. and even from different parts of the world. But Latif says they’re not interested in expanding Honest Chops until they’ve perfected the one store they have now.

“We don’t want to fall into the problems that we’re trying to actually remedy, which is the mass production of things,” he says.

Photos courtesy of Bassam Tariq / Honest Chops

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Meet New York’s Most Devoted Butchers