Q & A with Yvonne Maffei of My Halal Kitchen
How did you get you're start with My Halal Kitchen? When and how did the light bulb go off that started the idea?
In 2008, I was at a crossroads in my life where I just feel pretty unhappy with where I was and it hit me that I had to take more initiative and control over my future if I wanted anything to change for the better. I had always-and I mean always, wanted to work in food, writing and travel but had no real idea how to make that happen, especially after becoming Muslim and starting to eat only halal food. I sort of let all my dreams go for many years and then it donned on me that halal food and cooking was an area that I was really learning so much about that could actually be of great benefit to others, combined with the world travels and global cuisine I had grown up with all my life. With some definite encouragement from those around me and an attitude that I would not look back from that point, I have never worked harder or longer or more passionately on something than this. It all finally felt right…
I think if there was such a popular thing as food photography or food blogs when I was a pre-teen, I may have started my career by age 11 or 12!
As a convert tell us a little more about your journey to Islam?
I didn’t really know much about Islam or Muslims until going off to college where I was often spoken to in Arabic by many of the students who confused me with someone of Middle Eastern descent. After a while, I started to wonder a little more about the culture. These people were very friendly and hospitable and once I began talking to them in more depth, I really came to like their family values, belief in something higher than themselves, their seriousness towards education and how they prioritized all of those things above what most college kids are preoccupied with at the same age. I had also recently returned from Morocco via a study abroad trip in Spain and remembered fondly the people and culture of that country, although it was a short trip within my language program at the time. It was nothing like how most people stereotyped the Arabs or Islam and that completely intrigued me to learn more, including reading the Qur’an with absolutely no intention of converting. I was simply trying to broaden my horizons about a different culture.
Five years later and after reading the Qur’an, Ahadith and many small booklets on Islamic principles, I decided that Islam was the path I wanted to take in my life.
And, as they say, the rest is history….
Just defrosted some thin beef steaks and quickly marinated in evoo, sea salt, parsley, lemon juice and lemon peel. Red onions will be grilled separately. - (source: My Halal Kitchen Facebook page)
Talking about halal food and cooking obviously isn’t the same as teaching Qur’anic knowledge, but it does give a glimpse into the daily life, rituals and mindset of how Muslims live and what we believe.
Your love of food clearly began long before you came to Islam. What are your earliest "foodie" memories where you recognized your passion for it?
I think if there was such a popular thing as food photography or food blogs when I was a pre-teen, I may have started my career by age 11 or 12! My dad gave me a camera when I was small and always encouraged me to capture beautiful things, beautiful moments, natural elements around our home and when we traveled. Then, when I began cooking, he always wanted me to take photos of what I made because he said it the dishes turned out so beautiful.
It was around that time that I began reading magazines like Saveur, Bon Appétit, Condé Nast. A little later my mom started buying me all of the Martha Stewart Living books and magazines. In the middle of all of that, my parents were huge fans of trying international cuisine at restaurants wherever we went, but we also enjoyed amazing food cooked at home or with our Sicilian, Puerto Rican and Greek relatives. As a result, I wasn’t typical of most girls my age- I thought domesticity, gardening, cooking and travel were much more important than a trip to the mall for clothes shopping. I’m still that way…
Do you feel that the halal movement is real and growing? Do you see it growing beyond the Muslim community and into more mainstream American culture? And if so, why? Do you feel that Halal Food itself (in terms of cuisine) or the perception of it is undergoing a change?
Oh, it’s absolutely real. All the numbers point to growth, but only time will tell if those statistics are accurate. I believe in this industry because I know many of the movers and shakers behind the companies and organizations who are fueling its growth and I think their passion and determination will help drive it there, insha’allah. Besides, halal is not a man-made phenomenon.
There is an amazing amount of potential in the halal industry (not just in food) and we have to use it well if we want that to last and we want it to penetrate into mainstream American culture to be seen as normal and common as kosher, vegetarian, or gluten-free food products, for example.
I do think that halal food is undergoing a change in perception. People in the foodie world or the blogosphere don’t really care about the geographic origins of halal food or the political problems that exist in the regions where falafel comes from; they care about one thing: taste. A lot of halal food in the form of restaurants and food trucks around the country are really making a name for themselves. People are interested in trying new cuisines such as Indian or Middle Eastern (although general by mentioning that way), are very new and exotic to most people. That’s very interesting to folks. It kind of reminds me of Mexican food nearly 20 years ago. Who would have thought that taco trucks or gourmet Mexican restaurants or cooking shows would be competing with French and Italian ones?
What does Halal mean to you? There has been a change towards making many things halal beyond food, are you a fan of this movement? Do you see dangers with this or do you think this is positive trend? Halal Finance, Halal Food etc…
Islam is a way of life and so if we follow the halal (permissible) and avoid the haram (impermissible), we should try our very best to do that in all aspects of our daily living. It’s not just about food or just about how we earn our living or invest our money or buy our homes, it’s the whole package and in doing so it allows for moderation and balance in our lives. What could be ‘dangerous’ about that? Things get dangerous when people start making up their own rules and start going to extremes with their practices or forcing such things on others. Halal is an option, whether it’s in food or finance- at least we can say we are blessed to have it available, alhamdullilah. Take it or leave it.
I do think that halal food is undergoing a change in perception. People in the foodie world or the blogosphere don’t really care about the geographic origins of halal food or the political problems that exist in the regions where falafel comes from; they care about one thing: taste.
You have at times written for Whole Foods and others in the broader American community on Islam, food and/or Islamic holidays. What do you feel the important things as Muslims we can convey to non-Muslims? Do you feel a responsibility in that regard?
Yes, I do. I believe in the Islamic concept that we should teach what we know, as good and accurate knowledge can benefit so many people. Talking about halal food and cooking obviously isn’t the same as teaching Qur’anic knowledge, but it does give a glimpse into the daily life, rituals and mindset of how Muslims live and what we believe. It’s a fascinating window into the things we do that put a stamp on our belief system, and more often than not I find that many non-Muslims come to respect and feel more comfortable with us simply by knowing the “why” and “how” behind those things. In the end, they see more similarities than differences and it has been a catalyst for peaceful interfaith dialogue that is sorely needed in much of the world.
Have you been surprised at all the attention you have received and receptivity you have received outside of the Muslim community?
Yes and no. On one hand, I was braced for negative receptivity but alhamdullilah have not experienced any of that. It seems as though there is such an interest in halal food, cooking, Ramadan and our holidays that once the platform was created (MyHalalKitchen.com) and the dialogue created, there was a flood of requests for in-person presentations and that communication has been so positive for everyone involved. On the other hand, my hunch told me that there was a gap in information on this topic and if I filled it then perhaps I could help change the perception of what halal means and help make ‘halal’ food a household name whereby everyone in America would at least have an understanding of its meaning. We still have some ways to go on that one…
With your collaboration with Silver Envelope on some fun party products and things for the kitchen, what are your hopes? What was your drive behind creating these fun little Sweet Dawah Kits?
First of all, I absolutely love working with Raana, the incredibly creative mind behind Silver Envelope, masha’allah. She’s a complete joy to work with, she is so open to new ideas and has an eye for beautiful design- that alone enticed me to want to collaborate on the creation of Silver Envelope products. The Sweet Dawah Kits are the perfect marriage between the homemade versions I’ve been creating for years and Raana’s ability to bring our design ideas to fruition and into a product that can be offered to friends and neighbors. What is so exciting is that now there is actually something available for all of us to give to those who don’t quite know about our traditions and learn about them in a very beautiful way. It’s the way I had always dreamed we could do it!
The Sweet Dawah Kits are the perfect marriage between the homemade versions I’ve been creating for years and Raana’s ability to bring our design ideas to fruition and into a product that can be offered to friends and neighbors.
Finally, there have been a lot of exciting things happening with My Halal Kitchen lately alhamdullilah, can you tell us about some of your latest initiatives?
Yes, alhamdullilah, there are some exciting things happening, indeed! With the publication of my cookbook late last summer, Summer Ramadan Cooking, I’ve decided to take it on tour of Chicago this summer so that I could meet readers in person and talk about the recipes in the book, preparation for Ramadan cooking, planning and organizing the home. It’s been so much fun!
I’m also using my time to do the things I absolutely love, which are teaching classes about cooking and gardening. For example, I’m instructing courses on global cuisine at Whole Foods- we’ve already finished two very successful ones in both Moroccan and Indian cooking and are looking forward to doing some Sicilian and Spanish cooking courses over the summer. Another series of classes I teach monthly that are near and dear to my heart is with the UMMA (Urban Muslim Minority Alliance) Center which provides underprivileged individuals access to community resources. They’re also the only non-profit around that offers halal meats in their food pantry, which is open to anyone in need. I teach monthly classes on cooking on a budget while using fresh ingredients, how to plant and care for culinary herbs and how to incorporate them into meals.
Aside from all of that and keeping up with the website and the creation of MHK merchandise, I have been fortunate enough to support some great halal food initiatives this year and be involved in the Halal Food Tour with Sameer’s Eats where I am doing live cooking demos and judging some pretty intense cooking challenges.
Food and celebration go hand in hand. Do you have any specific Ramadan or Eid traditions that you have developed since coming to Islam either with food or your celebrations? Please share a couple if you do.
Since we don’t have children, my husband and I take the time after the Eid prayer and always go out to a special brunch, just the two of us. It’s a way for us to treat ourselves to a morning out for something special before visiting with others when we don’t really get to sit down and talk. We try a new Chicago restaurant every time- last year it was Rick Bayless’ restaurant Topolobampo where the Obamas are often found dining when in town. Can’t wait to see where it will be this Eid.
For more global traditions celebrated by Muslims around the world during Ramadan and Eid, please visit MyHalalKitchen.com
Any first day Ramadan recipes you could share?
Those will all be posted on the website so please tune in- we plan on sharing a lot of great recipes you can use all month long. And, don’t forget to get your copy of my book, Summer Ramadan Cooking: Recipes & Resources for Healthy Meals All Month Long- available in paperback, Kindle, ibook/ipad or as an e-book!
With Ramadan and Eid approaching, what are you're hopes and prayers for this year?
I pray for our world to become more peaceful and for it to return to a more natural state. There is way too much going on that is extremely unsettling- violence, the disappearance of the bees, an increase in pesticide use, horrid natural disasters and so much more. I hope and pray that Allah swt forgives us all our sins and allows us the time, resources, energy, intellect and moral compass to do the right thing and fix what’s really wrong in our world.
Yvonne Maffei is the Publisher and Editor in Chief of MyHalalKitchen.com(link to www.myhalalkitchen.com), a popular food blog focused on halal cooking, eating and wholesome lifestyle topics. She writes a cooking column in the UK-based SISTERS magazines and can be found offering cooking tips and more on her Facebook, (www.facebook.com/myhalalkitchen), Twitter (@myhalalkitchen), Pinterest and Instagram pages.