What have you been eating?

I caught sight of this entry on the blog Jowhara’s Chamber about the state of Muslim-run restaurants. The author explains how she passed a restaurant at which she had become quite a regular, stopped as she fancied an ice-cream, and found that the place had been closed down, for stomach-churning reasons:

So i was walking to this cafe and it was closed for the first time ever and there was these signs up on the shutters from enviromental health people so i stopped to read ir and it said ‘extensive mice and rat excrement found on the food preparation surfaces, large infestation. No running water for staff members to wash there hands with which could lead to contamination of food’, yuck yuck yuck.

How many of us are scrupulous about what we eat? There has been a discussion going on lately at various blogs ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5]) about Muslims and attitudes to ethnic foods, specifically the belief of some converts that they have to give up their “western” food and adopt Arab or Pakistani cuisines. Although this is a mistaken belief with no basis to it, it is a quite sincerely-held one and people should not be laughed at for thinking this way. There are, after all, quite a number of Muslim authorities who say that we should abandon western dress styles in favour of shalwar-kameez or jalabiyyas. Still, the way most converts get into “eating like a Muslim” is not through thinking it is compulsory and that eating western food is “imitating the kuffar”, but because most of the halaal fast food available to us - in the UK, certainly - is ethnic food.

Sadly, a lot of it is not of very good quality. I have never worked in food preparation myself, but I’ve come across food handling practices in some Muslim establishments which really lessened my desire to eat there, to say the least. The one I come across most usually is spraying cleaning fluid right in the direction of food. I don’t care if it’s “food safe”. Unless I know what’s in it, and that it’s OK both religiously and in health terms, I don’t want it in my food, full stop. On one occasion in a certain Edgware Road restuarant, I saw one staff member spray cleaner at the glass behind the curry buffet without covering up the dishes, and spraying the stuff onto a table from a great height, producing a big cloud of droplets, of which no doubt not all landed on the table over which it was sprayed. When I complained, the staff showed no understanding of why I didn’t want cleaning agents in my food.

Then there was the fried chicken I had at the only halaal food outlet at a certain shopping arcade in Kent. Or rather, ordered; I ended up not eating it, because the chicken wings were cold in the middle. Now, I’ve been eating chicken wings from Chicken Cottage for years, and I’ve never had half-cooked chicken from them, but I do remember ordering fried chicken from the student canteen in Aberystwyth several years ago and sending it back more than once because it was not cooked properly. I therefore concluded that people either know how to fry chicken so that it’s cooked to the middle, or they don’t, and these people didn’t. So I asked for my money back, and to their credit they gave it to me.

Then there is the plain bad service. Haroon of Avari wrote about this with regard to an Egyptian-run restaurant in New York in 2004; I wrote a reply which seems to have got lost in one of my many switches of blog tool or upgrade mess-ups. There’s one particular café in Kingston which I visit regularly because it’s got no real competition in terms of halaal eating in Kingston but at which I’ve found the service very often rude, stand-offish and hostile. In particular, I get brushed off when I complain about the newspapers not being there because the staff forget to pick them up and can’t be bothered to take out a subscription, or that the dead pot plant with sharp edges could injure someone. I’ve found my own newspapers put in the house paper rack and had to then seize them off other customers, and had the staff ask me about my marriage plans in front of the female staff, and even suggest to me, again in front of them (mostly not Muslim, none of them in hijab), that I marry them. The staff at this place have also been known to bang on the door repeatedly when I am in the loo.

The thing is that a lot of us eat in Muslim restaurants because, besides the food being halaal, we assume the hygiene will be better than in McDonald’s or KFC, and that the staff will treat us like Muslim brothers or sisters if we give them salaams. If you live in a house where the kitchen utensils, pots and pans are regularly used to prepare things you can’t eat and even those that aren’t are washed in the same water with the same cloths as those that are, you might often prefer to eat out than in (even though it costs more), but I must admit that the number of places where I will eat has gone down drastically over the years, now excluding for example nearly all the restaurants on the Edgware Road.

Frankly I can’t understand why anyone would think someone would want to be served by the guy who’s just been cleaning the tables or dealing with the rubbish, or be served cleaning agents with their biryani or their coffee, and given that people go to halaal restaurants expecting the food to be wholesome and the staff as conscientious about food as the customer, it’s particularly sad that many of our community’s restaurants are in some ways no better, and are in some ways worse, than everyone else’s. Perhaps the community could establish some sort of rating system, whereby both food quality and hygiene standards are inspected and the results published, so that restaurants whose staff contaminate their customers’ food could be exposed and experiences like Hibba’s mouse-dung ice-cream could be a thing of the past.

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