Growing up in Calcutta, Nerissa Ward would walk to her neighborhood open-air markets, gathering fresh, seasonal ingredients to make everything from bhelpuri to shepherd's pie with biryani. With a German-Armenian mother and a Barbados-born father, the Anglo-Indian girl developed a deep love for fusion cuisine prepared with organic produce and humanely slaughtered halal meat.
After moving to the United States, where she worked in a soul food restaurant and eventually ran an international cafe at Google, Ward longed to marry the global flavors of her childhood with the dietary guidelines outlined in Islam. Even though Ward is not Muslim, she has always kept halal. Halal interpretations vary, but, to Ward, now a chef living in Santa Clara, it has always meant that animals used for halal meat are fed natural grains, grass or corn and are not injected with hormones or chemicals.
To her, halal "is like having an organic stamp."
"It's just better quality," she says. "I'm very conscious of what I put in my body, and I want that for my customers, too."
Two years ago, Ward traded in the Google kitchen for a pink mobile one. Her food truck, Chutney Mary's -- a British term for a colorfully dressed, flashy lady -- brings creative, gourmet fusion halal cuisine to the streets of Silicon Valley. From her Armenian-style loco moco to her halal gumbo and candy-studded pomegranate chicken salad, Ward is one of several chefs expanding the offerings of halal food in the Bay Area and giving it a modern, gourmet touch.
On Aug. 17, Ward and two dozen other chefs and food purveyors, including Jimmy Sujanto of Berkeley's Padi and Ike Shehadeh of Ike's Place sandwich shops, will participate in California's first Halal Food & Eid Festival in Newark.
Co-founder Irfan Rydhan hopes the festival's eclectic mix of goodies -- which include Southern fried chicken from Oakland's New Africa Cafe and tapioca drinks from Livermore's Donut Wheel -- will help increase the general public's understanding of the Bay Area Muslim population's incredible ethnic diversity.
Sujanto, whose Padi menu includes home-style Indonesian food made with intoxicating blends of sweet soy sauce and spicy sambal, will engage the festival crowd with a cooking demo of his most popular dish, sate ayam, or chicken satay.
To make the tasty skewers, Sujanto marinates halal chicken thighs in a peanut sauce he crafts with fried, skin-on peanuts, lime juice and sweet soy sauce. His Berkeley restaurant has only been open eight months, but demand among the Muslim community was so high, Sujanto opened a second Padi last month in San Leandro.
"Most of the Malaysian restaurants in the Bay Area are not halal," he says. "When the Muslim community found out about my food, they were pretty excited. We had to stay open late most nights during Ramadan."
Rydhan also hopes the wide variety of food at the festival inspires even more of the Bay Area's estimated 300,000 Muslims to eat strictly halal. According to Zabihah.com, the world's largest guide to halal eateries, there are 443 halal restaurants and 118 halal markets in the Bay Area.
"There are more options than people think," Rydhan says. "We have halal soul food. We have halal cupcakes."
To be considered halal, non-meat items must be blessed and handled by a practicing Muslim and cannot come into contact with swine flesh, a category that includes gelatin. But the range of halal dishes the Bay Area offers runs the full menu gamut, from high end dinner fare to some killer sandwiches.
Ike's Place founder Ike Shehadeh has developed hundreds of sandwich and sauce recipes since he opened his first uber-popular sammie shop back in 2008. To date, there are 100 halal sandwiches on his menu, including the sweet orange-glazed "We're JUST Friends" halal chicken sandwich and the Caesar-smothered "Backstabber."
Shehadeh wanted to broaden halal options to include an everyday American staple like the sandwich.
"Wherever I went, even New York, I wasn't seeing a huge variety of halal foods," says Shehadeh, who just opened his ninth restaurant in Walnut Creek. "Most of them were Mediterranean or Middle Eastern. "Personally, I offer it because I don't want anyone to miss out on a great sandwich. It was the same when someone came in and told me they couldn't eat gluten. I got gluten-free bread."
Nerissa Ward, of Chutney Mary's, sees halal the same way.
"I have a lot of Muslim friends and family who come to my house or truck and rejoice that they get to enjoy foods that they normally wouldn't have," she says. "I make Southern fried chicken that is halal. They wouldn't be able to find that in a traditional restaurant."
And, just as in Calcutta, everything Ward serves comes from within walking distance of her home.
halal food & eid festival
California's first Halal Food & Eid Festival runs from noon to 7 p.m. Aug. 17 in the main parking lot of NewPark Mall (between Sears and Macy's), 2086 NewPark Mall, Newark. In addition to two dozen food, drink and dessert vendors from around the Bay Area, Halal Fest will host a bazaar selling clothing, jewelry, books, toys and artwork, plus live music and rides for the kids. Free and open to the public. Bring a can of vegetarian food to donate to the Rahima Foundation and be entered in a raffle for prizes. Purchase discounted food tickets through Aug. 16 at http://halalfest.com.