Canada: Halal Food Fest showcases diverse, exotic taste of halal food

logoToronto’s first Halal Food Fest at the International Centre in Mississauga on June 1 and 2.

By Noor Javed, The Star

Alvaro Carol is a halal food newbie.

He knew almost nothing about the rules of halal meat — meat slaughtered in accordance with Islamic guidelines — when he opened his Peruvian rotisserie chicken restaurant, Los Chicos-Brasa, in Markham in January. Serving halal wasn’t a religious decision for Carol, a lawyer by day and the nouveau restaurateur by night, but more of a business one.

“You could call it a business decision, because we are trying to cater to everyone and not any one community,” he said of his restaurant situated near Markham Rd. and 14th Ave, near to where a significant Muslim population lives. “I recently learned about halal, and decided to give it a try,” said Carol, who imports spices from Peru for chicken slow-cooked over charcoal.

So far, the decision has paid off. “We haven’t even put up a sign with the name of our restaurant yet, but we have a lot of people coming simply through word of mouth,” he said.

Carol is hoping the name of his restaurant will also get around when he brings the family recipe to Toronto’s first annual Halal Food Festival at the International Centre in Mississauga on June 1 and 2. With more than 80 vendors expected to participate, and likely the first ever halal rib & grill fest in the city, the event aims to give food-lovers of any variety a chance to explore the diverse and exotic world of halal food in the city.

“People will be able to come to the event and literally get a snapshot of what the Toronto halal food market is like,” said Salima Jivraj, an organizer of the event. The event has free admission and is pay as you eat.

Halal most often applies to rules dictating how an animal should be slaughtered, including: the animal should be healthy, a prayer should be recited, the arteries and veins cut in a specific way, and the blood drained out of the body.

But the word halal roughly translates to “lawful” or “permissible” and thus applies not only to religious slaughter, but can also apply to foods that use animal derivatives and byproducts such as cheeses, oils and those prepared using pork or alcohol.

In a report by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the government estimates that the halal food industry is worth more than a billion dollars in Canada. And in a city like Toronto, with a sizable Muslim population, the halal food industry is booming — with new eateries opening up almost every week and many mainstream ones providing halal options for their Muslim clientele.

Jivraj, has run the blog for the past two years, where she reviews halal restaurants around town and connects food lovers to the food makers. The idea for the Toronto halal food festival came to her after she heard about a small scale one which took place in New Jersey last summer.

“I thought this would be such a great thing for Toronto since we have such a diverse food offering and diverse population,” she said. “But then I thought who would organize it here?”

She gathered some fellow foodies and together, after months of planning, they have put together a free two-day culinary extravaganza that includes seven festival areas including “sample city,” a bazaar, food courts and an outdoor street fest.

But just as important as the food is transparency, said Jivraj. That’s why the festival organizers will require food vendors to display an information sheet indicating whether the meat is hand- or machine-slaughtered, and if they serve alcohol or pig byproducts at their restaurant.

While there will be traditional cuisines such as Indian and Middle Eastern, there will be no shortage of diverse options ranging from Japanese, Mexican, Portuguese, and Italian. And there will be some traditional food festival fare as well, including cooking exhibitions, a cake decorating competition and cheese sampling.

“A big problem of consumers, day to day, is cheese,” said Jivraj. “I get a lot of questions on my blog from people asking where they can find cheese like fresh parmesan,” she said. “For some consumers, the big issue is animal rennet.”

So festival organizers reached out to Dairy Farmers of Canada, one of the three platinum sponsors of the event, to come on board and educate the Muslim community on the variety of “permissible” cheeses available in the market.

“For us, it was a learning experience,” said Gianna Ciancio, Program Manager in Marketing for Dairy Farmers of Canada. They will be hosting cheese samplings the two days and will test out a range of kosher cheeses, which have similar ingredient restrictions, said Ciancio.

Jivraj is insistent that the event is for everyone, regardless of religious affiliation. “If you like food, this is an event for you,”

For more information and a schedule of events, go to