Are you a ‘halaloodie?’ Meet the bloggers making life easy for halal diners

From mind-boggling burgers to delicious desserts, these Muslim foodies take their followers on an international tour of the world’s best halal eateries. (Shutterstock)
Updated 23 January 2018
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Are you a ‘halaloodie?’ Meet the bloggers making life easy for halal diners

DUBAI: You can barely look at an Instagram feed now without encountering dozens of drool-worthy food photos. Social media has had an undeniable impact on how we view and consume food and, according to Dubai-based culinary personality Dima Sharif, how we “express and interact with food.
“People have become way more aware about food issues, (including) healthy eating, and even the cultural and historical impact of food around the world,” she told Arab News. “People have definitely become better cooks and developed a deeper appreciation for good food images too.”
Social media has even affected the hospitality industry to the extent of hotels and restaurants now thinking about their Instagram-friendliness when designing concepts. “The whole idea of Instagram-ability is catching on as restaurants and cafes are thinking about every detail in terms of both food and décor,” Fizzah, from The London Haloodie Instagram account, told Arab News.
But who among the social media world’s self-proclaimed foodies are wowing us with their images — while also being culturally sensitive? We trawled through Instagram to discover the culinary bloggers and influencers who not only specialize in halal food, but do so in style.
Curate your “following” list to include these, and you will have your gourmet inspiration sorted.
The London Haloodie
An eclectic combination of luxury restaurant meals, coffee and cakes (lots of it in fact), selfies, with the occasional travel pic thrown in for good measure, this is the Instagram feed you wish you had.
“I consider myself as showcasing the best halal places in London (and the places I travel to) that step away from the traditional notion of what halal food is, through the eyes of a modern Muslim,” said Fizzah. “In my opinion, just because we eat halal food it shouldn’t restrict us from trying different cuisines from all over the world.”
Sukaina Rajabali
No one does a flat lay quite like this self-taught food stylist and photographer. While her food shots feature a distinctive shabby chic aesthetic, her travel images are no less lust worthy. Her top tip for nailing the perfect flat lay? “Always think about balance in terms of how many items you have in the shot – odd numbers usually work better — and negative space.”
Dima Sharif Online
Dima Sharif’s Instagram account offers Middle Eastern cooking inspiration in spades, with beautiful shots from her cookbook. Drawing inspiration from “real food and real ingredients,” she also features ingredients, seasonal produce, as well as products from her own gourmet brand, DS Organic Mooneh. “I’m inspired by what’s going on in the world we live in, environmental issues and especially soil and farming,” she explained. And the bonus? Following her might also lead to giveaway wins.

DS Mooneh Story (Part 1, part 2 in the next post) “Quality Is My Legacy.” In the first decade of the 1900’s, my grandfather was a well known produce merchant in Jerusalem. He had a few fruit and vegetable shops opened in the ancient city, from where he supplied hotels, eateries, and the food industry back then with their produce requirements. He did very well and within just a few years he expanded his business to cover many different areas within Palestine. He believed that the key to his success and what makes or breaks any business is primarily the quality of the product and as importantly the building of a relationship with his customers, where his product is catered to their individual requirements. Those practices proved crucial to his career over the years and set him up to expand his business to eventually export his products to more Arab countries as well as Turkey and Europe. As the business expanded and grew, so did his clients’ requirements. And at that time it was somewhat difficult to control the quality of the produce supplied by the many individual farmers. He knew that in order to guarantee the quality he would have to control the production process. Also at that time, the whole modern farming processes were just starting and early versions of untested pesticides were rapidly filling the markets. The idea of ‘chemicals in his food’ did not sit well with him and so he opted to continue purchasing only from the farmers who did not use these chemicals in their farms. That proved easier said than done, as more and more farms were using those chemicals. That was when he decided to take the matter into his own hands and start producing the supply himself as a means to control the process and guarantee the standards and quality he was after. Therefore, in the early 1930’s, he bought pieces of land in the Jordan Valley, East of the River Jordan, and started his own fruit and vegetable farms. Those farms were the first man-made farms in Jordan and through the years became widely known as the oldest, largest and best quality farms in the whole of Jordan. Doing so, he was able to produce the quality he believed in (part 2 next)

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Halal Gems
The ultimate authority on halal restaurants in London and beyond, this Instagram account provides the inside scoop on where to find the best food — they have got a great eye for hidden gems — with a mouthwatering parade of images of burgers, bakes, ice cream and desserts.
Dalia’s Kitchen
This stylish Syrian-German based in Dubai combines images of things she cooks up in her (equally stylish) kitchen with quick recipe videos and endearing family pictures.
Saudi Food Eman
Providing much-needed insight into Saudi Arabian cuisine — and with it, Saudi culture — this YouTube star has curated her Instagram account into sequential posts highlighting ingredients, recipe videos and the final product. The pictures are as bright and colorful as the food itself.
Halal Girl About Town
Going by her Instagram feed, HGAT is probably the embodiment of the location-independent digital nomad. Her feed is flooded with all the yum stuff she eats at home base London — from pide to pizza — and delicious shots from her travels.
Tazzamina
This lifestyle influencer has a great eye for top shots (cue, fabulous flat lays) for her food images, which she mixes up with fashion, luxury and parenting posts.


Meet the cheese maker with a lot of bottle

Razan Alsous decided to make her own halloumi after a fruitless search for the family staple. Her Yorkshire Dama Cheese firm (below) now employs eight people and counts Princess Anne (far left) among its admirers. (Alex Cousins)
Updated 19 August 2018
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Meet the cheese maker with a lot of bottle

YORKSHIRE: This is a very cheesy story, in the best possible way. It is also a story about resourcefulness, determination and how to build a new life when an old one is lost.
It takes place in a small factory in northern England, where Razan Alsous, 34, a refugee from the war in her native Syria, is forging a reputation as a producer of top-quality halloumi cheese.
She founded her company, Yorkshire Dama Cheese (Dama being short for Damascus) in 2014, less than two years after arriving in England with her husband, Raghid Sandouk, 53, and their three children. Just four months later, Razan won a bronze medal at the World Cheese Awards. The following year she took gold.
Now branded Yorkshire Squeaky Cheese, her halloumi went on sale earlier this year in 40 branches of Morrisons, one of Britain’s biggest supermarket chains. It was an instant hit and now Morrisons want to stock it in 275 stores nationwide.
Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, the supermarket giants, also want Razan’s halloumi on their shelves. No wonder, then, that Yorkshire Dama Cheese is looking into acquiring more equipment and bigger premises to meet the increasing clamour for its products.
For a young mother-of-three with zero experience of the food industry to go from complete novice to prize-winner in a matter of months would be impressive enough if Razan had lived in Yorkshire all her life.
That she started a business in a foreign country, with unfamiliar laws and customs, and is succeeding, makes her story inspirational.
Being foreign, from Syria, and a Muslim, has barely provoked comment, she said.
“There was a taxi driver — an Asian — who asked me if I was Muslim. I said, ‘Look at me, I’m wearing a headscarf, of course I’m Muslim.’ And he said he thought I might be a nun.
“Generally, I find people are not focused on how I look. They focus on the product. They see someone who is working hard, trying to do something and they want to support you. It’s very positive. I love the personal contact I have with the farmers, who accepted me straight away. I see that England and Syria are quite similar. They are both old civilizations that value history. I feel I am with people who understand me.”
Until six years ago, the family enjoyed a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle with a home on the outskirts of Damascus. Razan, who has a degree in microbiology, was studying pharmacology at Damascus University. Raghid, an electronics engineer, owned his own company supplying quality control equipment to the pharmaceutical industry.
When the conflict began in 2011, they tried to suppress their fears, even as it began to affect their lives more and more.
“We couldn’t visit our family. Each time Raghid went to work I didn’t know if he’d be back. His warehouse was smashed up by armed gangs. There were people being kidnapped just for dealing with British companies,” said Razan.
Then, on July 23, 2012, a car bomb exploded outside the building where Raghid had his office.
“He called me and said, ‘I’m alive but everything is destroyed.’ All he could see was dust,” said Razan. Three days later, the family were on a plane out of Syria.
“My father didn’t want us to leave. He said everything will be all right, and if it had just been Raghid and me, we would have stayed. It was harder for Raghid because he had a business he had built up over 15 years, with 15 employees. I asked him to leave. I could cope with no electricity. I could cope with limited water. I could cope with everything except lack of safety for my children. You can’t just sit there and wait to die.”
The family came to the UK because Raghid had a multiple-entry business visa and they had connections in the country. Raghid’s grandfather used to travel regularly to Huddersfield, a wool-producing town, to buy cloth for his textile shop, and Raghid’s brother had settled there 30 years ago.
Although the couple clung to the belief that their stay would be temporary, Raghid’s brother advised them to apply for asylum. Razan was granted temporary permission to stay after five weeks. For Raghid, it took almost two years.
“At first, we felt we were on holiday. It was summer, people were relaxed,” said Razan. But with the Syrian pound plummeting in value, their life savings were quickly depleted. They could not get jobs as their qualifications were not recognized. Nor could they study to re-qualify. Razan picked up some translation work, but it was irregular. She hated “signing on” — applying for welfare benefits.
Razan hit on her business idea one day after a fruitless search for halloumi that tasted as good as the cheese that is a staple of family breakfasts back home in Syria. The shops stocked what she describes as “tasteless” halloumi, imported from Cyprus, and made with powdered milk.
“That’s when it struck me: I would make cheese,” she said.
In her research she discovered that the British were the biggest consumers of halloumi in Europe. Her brother-in-law, who owned a string of fast-food businesses, gave her the use of the kitchen in a defunct chicken shop, where she spent a year experimenting with recipes. She found the key ingredient right under her nose.
“Yorkshire milk. The quality is excellent — much creamier with a high percentage of solids,” said Razan. “In Syria, the best halloumi is made in springtime when the grass is new and green. But here the climate is more consistent for good pasture, so the milk is more consistent in quality.”
She mentioned her idea to an adviser at the local Job Center, who referred her to the Enterprise Agency. She was assigned a mentor who steered her through researching the market and drawing up a business plan before applying for a start-up loan.
She received £2,500 to be repaid within two years. The loan was not enough to buy all the equipment she needed, but the ever-resourceful Raghid adapted an ice-cream maker so that it heated the milk instead of cooling it, and converted an insulated fish tank into a fridge.
They began by selling to local delis and cafes. Razan spent her last £500 on the fee for an exhibitor’s stall at the Harrogate Fine Food Show. It proved to be a wise move.
“People loved the cheese and we met our first distributor. He said: ‘This is what we need in Yorkshire,’ and we are still working with him.”
Four months after beginning production, they entered the World Cheese Awards, held in the huge exhibition center in London’s Olympia. It was an eye-opener.
“We knew nothing about it. There were 2,750 different cheeses on display, big blocks of Cheddar … and we arrived with just a few blocks of cheese. We looked very silly,” said Razan. Her initial reaction was to turn and go home. But Raghid said they might as well stay and just enjoy it.
To their amazement, they won the bronze medal. “We were jumping around, shouting. I phoned all my family. We were overjoyed.”
The next year, they entered again and won gold. “It proved the first time was not a fluke. We really did have a good product that people like,” said Razan.
The walls and every spare surface of the office above the factory floor are now covered in awards. For the Queen’s 90th birthday in 2016, they supplied cheese for the British embassy party in Vienna.
Razan and her halloumi have appeared on television and when he was prime minister, David Cameron nominated her as an ambassador for International Women’s Day in 2015.
Last year, Yorkshire Dama Cheese moved out of the disused chicken shop into their current premises on a small industrial estate. Princess Anne, the Queen’s daughter, came to open the new factory last year and stayed for lunch.
“She requested it, and she stayed almost two hours, much longer than her schedule,” said Raghid. “It was a proud day,” Razan said.
The 1,200 liters of milk collected daily from a local dairy farmer is turned into around 2,500 blocks of halloumi each week. The Yorkshire Squeaky Cheese brand came about because Cyprus was seeking Protected Designated Origin status for the halloumi name, a label granted by the EU to a small number of products. The name stuck.
“It works because the test of good halloumi is the squeak when you squeeze it, and also kids like it,” said Razan.
As well as five varieties of halloumi, they make labneh, also labelled “spreadable yogurt” for customers unfamiliar with the Middle Eastern name. The whey left over from making halloumi becomes ricotta cheese. Nothing is wasted and nothing is added, said Razan.
Weekends are spent at food fairs and farmers’ markets. Sales to restaurants, independent shops and online customers have “gone crazy” in the past six months.
They have now bought a house and the children — Angie, 9, Yara, 8, and Kareem, 6 — are happily settled in school. “They are Yorkshire kids now. They laugh at my accent,” said Razan.
Razan’s parents and siblings have followed her to Britain. Her father volunteers at the Buzz Project, running community beehives, where he is known by the nickname Mr. Honey.
Though it pains her to admit it, the prospect of returning to Damascus is receding. “I cannot close down because we have eight employees depending on us,” said Razan. “But I want my children to know where they came from and we will take them when it is safe.”
That’s not all they intend to take back to Syria.
“We aim to export our halloumi to Syria,” said Raghid. “With Yorkshire milk and Syrian know-how, we will make the UK the halloumi capital of the world.”