Sounds familiar? That’s because we have all been through this endless cycle of hunger and ridding ourselves of the ache with the many halal carts found across New York City. Halal food, the food prepared in accordance with the Islamic dietary laws, was once predominantly eaten by Muslims. But now you can catch nearly anyone chowing down on some chicken over rice, thanks to the popularity of the halal carts. Although still fairly new, halal food is making its way to the top of New York City’s food cart chain.
The Greeks, Italians, and Jews once dominated the food cart business and in return, the New York City streets were introduced to different foods and cultures. Historian Andrew F. Smith writes in Gastropolis: “In the early 1800s, it was Italian peanut sellers…, the more enterprising vendors created a harsh franchise system that recruited peddlers and supplied them with carts and peanuts on credit. Jewish street vendors popularized pickles and knishes on the street and then upgraded to owning delis and other brick and mortar stores. Though Greek immigrants have long had a presence in New York City, their street food boom came in the latter half of the 20th century, coinciding with an increase in Greek immigration to the United States between 1960 to 1980.” According to NYC-based freelance journalist Tove Danovich, as per the cycle of vending in the city, these Greek street vendors now own their own pizza places and diners. But every immigrant group has gotten their start — at least in part — on the streets.
The origins of the Halal Carts came from the Muslim cab drivers who wished to have a nice hot halal meal quickly and easily before they start another twelve-hour shift. This demand led to immigrants from Muslim-dominated countries to set up camps on the corners of Manhattan and sell warm meals to a crowd of intrigued people.
“Since they first began popping up in the late 1980s, halal carts have grown into some of the most ubiquitous food carts in the city. While New York City doesn’t track cart licenses by the type of food served,” a 2007 New York Times article cited a Queens College sociology study reporting that “between 1990 and 2005, the number of food vendors who self-identified as being of Egyptian, Bangladeshi, or Afghan descent surged to 563.”
“That’s seven times more than the 69 vendors of Egyptian, Bangladeshi, or Afghan descent recorded 15 years earlier, in 1990,” writes Tove Danovich in Eater.com. One cart, in particular, has become a New York City icon. Their name: The Halal Guys. Their food cart has become so popular they now boast multiple locations, a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the East Village, and are set to become a franchise with locations throughout the United States and abroad.
“In 1992, the founding partners discovered that there was a huge, unmet demand for quick, filling halal food. So the meat became halal and the food switched from the glorified snack that is a hot dog into a cart-cooked entrée. Abouelenein says that the meat, rice, and salad combo came from a desire to make each platter as close to a “full meal” as possible. Even today, many of its long-lined carts have a special “taxi line” so drivers can get their food, eat, and carry on with their 12-hour shifts.”
After reading this article you may think maybe I should start my own halal cart and make a lot of money. Great idea! But getting a permit may make your dream nearly impossible, especially with the huge waitlist. Since the city put a cap on street vending permits in the 1980s, the line to own one has gotten longer — estimates range between 10 and 20 years. While it hasn’t stopped new vendors from getting in the game, it’s made it more expensive. A business like Healthy Halal is charged only $200 for a two-year permit by the city. The only option for have-nots is to rent a permit (illegally) from another vendor at prices as high as $20,000.
With the popularity of the halal cart rising, so has the culture intake. Many New Yorkers who’ve heard of halal but were never interested are now doing their research on how the food is prepared. They are now able to try a combination of Middle Eastern and South Asian delicacies which in turn create a bridge with other cultures. In fact, the carts’ appeal extends beyond Muslim patrons. “Can food normalize [relations between ethnicities]?” asks Sameer Sarmast, whose blog Sameer’s Eats reviews halal food from the restaurant to cart. “Of course it can. Just look at those lines,” writes Tove Danovich. The gap between immigrants from Muslim countries and those of European descent is slowly decreasing as they come together over something no one can refuse, food.
Halal carts have been around in NYC for more than thirty years now. What started out as an easy way for Muslim cabbies to eat turned into a New York City culture. It’s amazing how now when one thinks of the Big Apple not only the Lady Liberty and the Freedom Tower comes to the mind but also of the halal carts littering the streets of the five boroughs. The halal food cart chain at Queens College — Shah’s Halal Food — in Queens has remained instrumental in popularizing halal food on campus, especially making it easier for Muslim students to eat a full meal that includes halal meat. The halal carts have made their mark on the city and will continue to do so in the future. And while writing this article, all I’ve wanted to do is go to the nearest halal cart and get chicken over rice with extra red sauce. Guess I know what I’m having for lunch tomorrow!
The writer is a NY-based freshman.