The Halal Carts of NYC

While I was preparing to come to New York, a friend told me that I should check out the halal carts in the city. That was the first I had heard of such a thing as a “halal cart”. Since I lived in the UAE, an Islamic country where all the locally available meat is prepared according to the halal standards, making sure I ate at a halal cart was not something I had to consider. The other country I frequently visit is India, where the situation is similar to the UAE because there is a large Muslim population in the country.

These halal carts seem so abundant that I get the impression that they are located at the intersection of every other street, and every other avenue (that can’t be true… can it?), and there are many posts online listing the locations of these halal carts, including NYC’s 6 Best Halal Food Carts. I am not quite sure if people here understand what halal meat is. Have they come to think of it as a brand name, made famous by the likes of The Halal Guys (location: W 53rd St 6th Ave, New York, NY 10019)?

Halal, written as ِحلال, is an Arabic word  which means “permissible” and refers to anything that is permitted for Muslims under Islamic guidelines as found in the Qu’ran. Halal meat refers to meat prepared in a certain way, pertaining to the humane slaughter of animals (source: Halal food).

The halal carts are renowned all over NYC for the following reasons:

  • Easily accessible
  • Cheap, affordable prices
  • The above two reasons x1,000,000
  • Usually owned by either an Arab, such as an Egyptian, Moroccan, or Lebanese or a South Asian such as an Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi

Personally, though the first two reasons may be valid (especially in a place like NYC, where prices are sky-scraperishly high), my reason for stopping by a halal cart is because it is a chance for me to practice my (rapidly dwindling) Arabic skills.

So yes, it’s a very pointed reason but I love it when I am able to converse with the vendors in their native tongue… it’s hard to describe the feeling in words. Having grown up in the UAE, I picked up the language from my friends and the Arabic classes I took and out of all the languages I’ve come across, Arabic is the one I hold dearest to me.

Maybe it’s the apparent complexity of the phonemes (sounds), or the cursive left-to-right script which is unique to Semitic and related languages, including Persian and Urdu.

Maybe it’s because it’s the language of the Qur’an, a language which holds importance for Muslims for this reason.

Maybe it’s because it’s manifested itself in everything I did as I was growing up. I picked up some Arabic from cartoons I used to watch on T.V. while growing up.

Whatever the reason is, I think the most important one is in observing the smile of recognition and delight from a halal cart vendor as he knows that you too speak the same language. The halal cart vendor I met today was in disbelief of the fact that I was from India: “But you speak Arabic so well!”

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart” — Nelson Mandela

I don’t recount this to show my language skills– in fact, I’m afraid of it leaving me slowly but surely as my exposure to the language decreases. But I have one message: learn a new language and find ways to practice it. If there is a language that you have always wanted to learn because a) you want to go to a place where that language is spoken, or b) you watch T.V. shows in that language, or c) you wish to settle down in a foreign place (heads up: Germany’s a great place to live in. Just saying), I’d say go for it.

I encourage you to practice the language whenever you get the chance and I hope you get a chance to experience what I did during my encounters with the halal cart vendors.

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P.S. Check out this awesome blog for the linguiphiles out there — whether you are looking to learn a new language, or practice what you already know, or just interested about random language facts… this is the site for you 🙂

P.P.S. The above collage of pictures is a mêlée of the unique cuisine I have had in the past month; a combination of restaurant and home-made food. (Y)

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