Halal Food in far of places
by Hussain Tutla
Islamic Tourism Magazine
Central America is one of the lowest Muslim population regions of the world, so when I took my Trip to Panama City in 2012, a place rich in history and culture with a distinct juxtapose of Spanish Colonial Architecture and the global pandemic of modern glass and steel buildings, I should have known that finding Halal food was going to be difficult.
Coming from London where Halal food was never widely available, but the large immigrant Muslim communities had made getting Halal food a relatively easy task if one was to make the effort of looking. Having travelled around Asia, Europe and America, it was a similar story and had expected that someplace somewhere there will be a parade of Halal shops and restaurants as in many cities around the world.
My initial thoughts were -I’ve always enjoyed fish, so a pescatarian diet should suffice until I find the city’s haven of Halal Restaurants. A few days had passed, and I was still in search for Halal food. The hotel staff seemed bemused at my constant enquiries for Halal restaurants, it became clear that halal was an alienated word for them. They suggested that I visit the mosque a few miles from the hotel, and maybe I could find out more there.
The plan was therefore, on the following day I’ll do my Friday prayers and hopefully I will be able to eat a Halal meal for lunch afterwards. After the prayer I started to approach some of the congregation, mostly made up of Indian Gujarati descent and asked them where we could go for Halal food.
To my astonishment I found out that there were no Halal restaurants area they could think of, and explained that there’s only a small community of Muslims in the whole country, mostly of Indian and Lebanese descent. The community had caterers that provided halal food for events and private gatherings but no restaurants as such.
Despondent from my findings we left in search for another seafood restaurant and conceded that the remaining 5 days will be a seafood diet.
A trip to Colon Free Trade Zone, the world’s second largest port of this kind, about an hour’s drive from Panama City we found that Lebanese business men we’re highly engaged in the running of most of the outlets, many Christian but just as many Muslims. My Initials thoughts were, if there are Lebanese people, then most definitely there are Lebanese restaurants, as is the case in most of the world where I had come across this community of entrepreneurs. ‘Hopes were raised, only to be shattered.’ A similar story of the Indian Muslim community we had spoken to previously.
A day before we are set to leave Panama, we decided on some gift shopping at Panama City Mall. About to order filet-o-fish from McDonalds, my saviour when Halal food cannot be found, when I noticed something surprising on the wall near the counter, a notice in Arabic. I had been in Panama City for almost 10 days and had come across no Arabs or Arabic, yet this notice was in Arabic in McDonalds of all places.
The notice took me even more by surprise, when it translated “The meat and chicken in this restaurant is Halal”. Not completely believing what I was reading, I proceeded to ask the cashier if she could explain this notice. Not being a Muslim, I had figured that she would probably not know what I was talking about and probably uninformed about the contents of the notice which was solely in Arabic.
To my astonishment she went on to explain that the meat and chicken was Halal, but the bacon was not. She further explained that the kitchen was separated to prepare the pork product side of the menu and that it never contaminated the Halal section of the kitchen.
It transpired that the McDonald franchise for Panama was owned by company whose owners were of Lebanese origin. They had decided to make all the McDonald Halal, even though the country had a Muslim population of less than 10,000.
I rejoiced in a Big Mac and Fries, amused that my greatest find in Panama was that of a Halal McDonalds.