Students say Halal station cuisine misses the cultural mark

Photo by Izzy Burgess ’19   Phi Bo ’22 serves Anna Belle Harada ’19 at the Halal station, which has been critiqued for its limited menu options

Photo by Izzy Burgess ’19

Phi Bo ’22 serves Anna Belle Harada ’19 at the Halal station, which has been critiqued for its limited menu options

BY SAMAN BHAT ’22

Within Mount Holyoke’s centralized Dining Commons, there are countless options for students to choose from. From the Grill station to design-your-own sushi rolls, sandwiches and omelets, diners rarely want for choice. But, some students head to a food station meant to cater specifically to their religious identity — and are met with lackluster options.

The Halal station leaves some students who maintain halal diets confused by the menu choices. According to BBC, “[the word] Halal is Arabic for permissible. Halal food is that which adheres to Islamic law, as defined in the [Quran].” Most food and drinks, aside from things like alcohol and pork, are considered halal by the Quran, making it easy for Muslim students at Mount Holyoke to eat vegetarian dishes from other stations. The need for a Halal station comes from the specific requirements one must follow to prepare meat that is considered halal, so the point of contention for many students comes from the lack of available meat options.

Malyun Hassan ’21, an active board member of the Mount Holyoke Muslim Students Association, said, “[In Islam], halal means that the meat has been blessed and prepared by a Muslim person.” Although some Muslim students eat kosher meat, which is permitted by the Quran, Hassan said, “I know a couple of friends that don’t eat kosher meat because it does not follow the [specific] halal guideline” called Zabiha, which requires the meat be blessed and prepared by a Muslim.

Many halal-eating students have claimed that the station is unsatisfactory and is not meeting their dietary needs. Vrisha Ahmad ’22, a Muslim student who frequents the Halal station, said, “It is so bad. Half of the time I see them serving dal.” Dal, a common Indian meal made with lentils and various spices, is considered a plain, basic dish. Ahmad believes it is unnecessary to serve the dish nearly every day. “I mostly go there to eat meat, but there is [only] one meat option, and it’s usually turkey,” she said.

Sennur Khoso ’22 and Fatima Zafar ’22, two Pakistani Muslim international students, felt the station does not focus enough on serving meat. “There isn’t meat everywhere,” said Khoso. “If you’re going to serve stuff like Bhindi — a common Indian vegetarian dish made with Okra — what is the point even?” She took particular issue with the fact that while many of the dishes are South Asian, if they do not contain meat they could be served at any other area in the Dining Commons. “The thing about halal is you can’t eat [meat] at other stations, so why can’t they just make what other stations make, just using halal meat?”

Zafar agreed with Khoso, saying, “They just put vegetables [in the Halal Station]. What is the point of even saying Halal? [Last time I went] there were four dishes of vegetables.”

Khoso and Zafar also brought up the point that most of the dishes being prepared at the Halal station fall into the category of South Asian cuisine. Khoso said, “Either you change it and call it South Asian Cuisine, or you change your menu [...] I feel bad for the people who aren’t desi [from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh] and eat at Halal.”

According to Forbes, there are over 1.6 billion consumers of halal food all over the world. Although halal food is commonly associated with South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine, there is a large scope of people who eat Halal and are not from those regions. Khoso is aware that there are many Muslim students in attendance at Mount Holyoke College who are not from the same region as her and her friends. She sympathizes with them, understanding that if they want halal food they are presented with only one type of cuisine that does not cater to their needs or tastes. However, Hassan, who is from Somalia, does not mind the South Asian cuisine. “Honestly, I am okay with not having a specific dish from my home,” she said. “I tend to mix and match different foods to get the desired home dish that I want.”

In response to concerns about the frequency of South Asian food representation over other cultures at the station, Director of Dining Services Richard Perna said, “After a meeting with the Office of Religious Life around this time last year, we were given the information that many of the students interested in halal food on campus were from South East Asia and were looking for recipes to reflect this cuisine.” He added, “Just last week, we were asked to provide more South Asian food items.”

The Muslim Students Association (MSA) at Mount Holyoke College played a major role in designing the Halal station in the Dining Commons. Maliha Rahman ’20, co-chair of the MSA, said it was a struggle just to get a Halal kitchen in the Dining Commons because the staff believed the requirements were not strict enough to deserve separate preparation. According to Rahman, the original plans were to include halal options in an allergen-free station, which the MSA worked hard to change.

“We were initially denied [and] told that halal is not as strict as kosher,” Rahman said. “Then, we were told, the plans [had] already been made and it [was] too late to plan for an entirely new kitchen. I responded by saying if they cannot do a whole kitchen for halal, then they cannot have any halal options available, and students such as myself will go the following semesters vegetarian or starve.”

Many halal-eating students at Mount Holyoke feel that though they’re glad to have a separate halal station in the Dining Commons, the offerings at the station could be better. Dining Services has responded: there is now a suggestions box next to the Halal Station and Dining Services has said that they are open to recipes from students. Perna is open to new suggestions and said, “As always, we are more than happy and willing to make changes to better service the wants and needs of the community. We encourage everyone to send us recipes and ideas […] We are really looking forward to seeing this station, along with the other stations, continue to evolve with the help and support of our community.”