On Halal Burgers

Tue, Sep 17, 2013

“What would you like to have today?” The lady at the counter cheerfully asks. I smile back at her, take another cursory glance at the menu and with a sigh say “I will take the Teriyaki Salmon Sandwich, please!”. I take another look at all the menu and can’t help notice how sad I am. The assortment of meat preparations bundled between two pieces of bread that could have been mine is long and diverse. I suck my teeth and promise myself that I will be paying the butcher a visit in the evening.

On those days when I fail to pack lunch to work, I find myself repeating this ritual, save for the substitution of Tuna—or Red Snapper if I am lucky—for the Salmon. The restaurant may change, and sometimes wraps smile at me instead of sandwiches, but the pain at having to let go of that goodness of beef or chicken remains the same.

I love meat. I grew up eating a lot of it, in a community that likes it so much that we have it for breakfast. (Writing that sentence just reminded me of plates of hot porotta 1 served with beef curry. Those were the days!) I am one of those people who try to eat only Halal 2 meat. Part of it is my religious belief and part of it is just habit. I grew up in Malabar where pretty much all meat you could buy was Halal. I have in the past consumed non-Halal meat, but somewhere along the line I decided to eat only Halal meat and I have stuck to it.

There is a running joke among me and my colleagues about this hypothetical restaurant named Halal Hipster that I would open. I would like to point out that I am no Hipster—last time I checked, I still needed a Visa to enter Haight-Ashbury. The name comes from my idea for a restaurant that serves American classics prepared with Halal meat so that people like me who love meat have the opportunity to appreciate them. I have often thought about what this restaurant would be like. The place will be dishing out Burgers, Hot Dogs and Wings; all made with Halal meat. Oh and Pizza—how could I leave out pizza? Every time I visit a restaurant in San Francisco and grudgingly order the vegetarian option, I will make an entry or three in the hypothetical menu at Halal Hipsters. Take for example last Friday when we went to Calzone’s at North Beach. While all around me Cheese Steaks and Chicken invoked into Calzones were being partaken, I was eating a Margherita pizza. It was a delicious pizza but I couldn’t help think how delicious their Chicken pizza would be.

While Halal Hipsters remains a fragment of our imagination, I do have the opportunity to indulge in my love for meat. I regularly buy stuff from Al Salama, the butchers at Jones Street. I buy chicken, lamb and beef and create Biriyanis and curries. I am not a great cook by any means, but as I have said elsewhere, I have watched a lot of Biriyani being prepared and I would like to believe that I do a pretty good job of it. But there are times when a Biriyani or a curry wouldn’t satisfy one’s hunger for meaty goodness. There are only a handful of things that can do it as grandly as that American classic, the humble burger.

I love making—and eating—burgers. I must admit that I am not a purist when it comes to burgers—I don’t grill my burgers. And I end up adding a lot of evidently Malabari things to the ground beef I buy from the butcher—cardamom, crushed pepper corns, cumin seed etc. My burgers end up being what would have happened if people in Malabar had invented the burger, which I guess is fair considering I like my Malabari spices.

I start by mixing (or am I supposed to say incorporating?) portions of my collection of spices in to the ground beef. I invariably end up adding chilli powder, cumin powder, coriander, crushed pepper corns, crushed cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. Ground garlic and ginger get an appearance when I am in the mood to wield the mortar and pestle. An egg and a pinch of bread crumbs act as the binder for the patty. I like slices of onion, tomatoes and finely chopped cabbage on my burger. I have not really shopped around for the right bread to make burgers. I end up using whatever is handy at the moment—whole wheat bread, rye bread or that delicious Moroccan semolina bread that the butcher sometimes stocks. As I said, I am no purist. I like a fine coating of mayonnaise on the bread, but I am not too strict about that.

I don’t grill my burgers mostly because I don’t have a grill. I would like to try it, but for the time being, I do fine with a frying pan coated with the thinnest layer of oil possible. The purist may laugh at this, but I would like to believe that the end justifies the means in this case.

Masala Burger

  1. Porotta is a layered flat bread from Kerala. Read more here. [return]
  2. In Islam, Halal refers to anything that is permissible. When applied to food, there are rules as to what is allowed and what is not. More information can be found at the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America’s website. [return]