Q&A: Festival founder Irfan Rydhan on halal foods, trends and Restaurant Week deals

By day, Irfan Rydhan is an architectural designer and facilities coordinator. But the San Jose native has another passion: Eating great halal food.
He’s known for his prolific internet restaurant reviews, as well as the events he’s produced. In 2013, he founded the Halal Food Festival, an annual Fremont event that draws thousands of people from California and even out of state drawn by the food trucks, cooking demos and entertainment.
This year, with all large festivals canceled, he and colleague Abbas Mohamed, founder of the Bay Area Halal Foodies group, have pivoted and created Halal Restaurant Week, Dec. 9-13, with Bay Area restaurants offering special deals on Mexican, Indonesian, Mediterranean, Indian and Italian fare, plus burgers, cheesesteaks and more.
We talked with Rydhan about the event and what’s new in the world of halal:
Q: For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, how are halal meats prepared? Are they healthier?
A: Halal means “permissible” in Arabic and refers to Islamic dietary restrictions, similar to kosher foods for people of the Jewish faith. There are things that are categorically outside the bounds of halal, including pork and alcohol, while other meats do need to be slaughtered under Islamic guidelines. In order for the meat to be considered “halal,” the name of God must be mentioned at the time of slaughtering the animal by a Muslim. Many people of other faiths who have tried halal meat prefer the taste and consider it healthier for you than regular meat.
Q: How does the Bay Area’s halal food scene compare to other large U.S. cities?  
A: The Bay Area halal food scene is definitely one of the most diverse in the country. Other major cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit and Houston also have great halal food, but as the Bay Area is the place for innovation, many brand-new concepts have started here, such as Zabihah.com in 1998 and the more recently launched Urban Halal app.
We also have representation of many ethnic groups featuring a wide variety of halal foods including Malaysian/Indonesian food (Red Kwali in Milpitas), Vietnamese food (Champa Kitchen in South San Jose), Nashville-style hot chicken (World Famous Hotboys in Oakland), Mexican food (El Halal Amigos food truck in Fremont), Gourmet Burgers (iniBurger in Pleasanton) as well as more traditional halal foods such as Indian/Pakistani (Mela Tandoori in San Francisco) and Mediterranean (Falafel Flame, which has locations in Concord, Dublin, Tracy and Sunnyvale).
Q: Diners here know about the Halal Guys, of course, and restaurants like Ike’s Love & Sandwiches that offer halal chicken. Are other companies embracing the concept?  
A: Yes, we are starting to see a lot more mainstream brands being open to halal meat and products. Safeway, Whole Foods, Walmart, Costco and other major stores all sell halal meats and pre-made meals from Saffron Road, Open Nature and Crescent Foods. Just a decade ago, you could only find these at specialty ethnic stores or small halal butcher shops.
Other mainstream brands that are recognizing halal as a major factor in the market include Tillamook cheese and Mountain High yogurt, which are now both certified halal by IFANCA (Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America).
We hope that through our festivals, and now our restaurant week, halal as a cultural phenomenon continues to be adopted in the mainstream, giving us all many more options to feast from.
Q: How will the Halal Restaurant Week work?
A: Halal Restaurant Week, which will be the first of its kind in the United States, features dozens of restaurants offering discounts and freebies. Each day there will be six restaurants featured on the website, www.halalfest.com. We are also providing over $1,500 worth of prizes to avid eaters, including commemorative merchandise, gift cards and free halal food products. Eaters will earn points by visiting restaurants and completing challenges, and prizes will be awarded to the top-scoring foodies. We will also have a special Instagram giveaway in partnership with Yelp East Bay.
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Q: What are some other halal sources for diners curious to know more?
A: Bay Area Halal Foodies is a Facebook group that has grown this year from under 1,000 members to 8,000, and features a community where Muslims seeking halal food as well as owners of restaurants gather to share their experiences and recommendations. Also, Abbas and I have started a new podcast called “The Artistic Foodies,” which is a show about halal food (surprise!) as well as art, history, culture and travel. Our first episode is on our website,  www.theartisticfoodies.com.

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