N.J. Islamic food bank prepares Thanksgiving feast with halal turkey
Garlic wafts in the air while sauce bubble on the stove. The kitchen clamors with young cooks preparing South Asian dishes. The women are in headscarves while the men wear hairnets covering dark curls. Some members of them layer carrots and peas into a mountain of basmati rice while others coat chickpeas in spices to create chana masala.
Just before the guests arrive, the workers gather in a circle for a pep talk and a prayer to Allah.
Muslims Against Hunger has been helping struggling Jerseyans for a decade. The organization visits interfaith soup kitchens as guest chefs on a monthly basis state-wide. Food enables them to bridge the cultural divide, offering Eastern cuisine to non-Muslims in need.
On Thanksgiving, the group is going to make its first attempt to prepare an all-American harvest feast with halal turkey. In years past, they’ve served their standard menu for the holidays. Swapping curry for cranberries, volunteers are going to distribute big meals at a Union City Islamic school.
Cooking is going to be a challenge because turkey is rarely eaten in South Asia and the Middle East. Members of the kitchen crew consulted with friends and searched online for a primer on how to roast the bird. Next year, they plan to introduce a fusion: tandoori turkey.
“Most of our volunteers are not Thanksgiving menu types,” says Zamir Hassan, a Bedminster computer consultant who directs the program. “They come from the Middle East and India and Pakistan and their holidays are different. This is a learning experience for us as well as the people we feed.”
Last Friday, a team of Muslim Rutgers students and alums gathered at Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick to make dinner for dozens of people living in poverty. “These people do not get a chance to go to exotic restaurants,” says Hassan, born in Karachi, Pakistan. “Our food is very popular. People ask when are the Muslims coming.”
Their Thanksgiving food drive, which runs through next week, is an initiative to deliver 2,000 meals in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts. The campaign includes stops in Trenton on Tuesday and Rahway on Dec. 4. The name “Muslims Against Hunger” is something of a misnomer because it is actually an interfaith charity with a board of trustees that includes four Muslims, one Jew, one Baptist and one Catholic. Hassan has hundreds of volunteers in seven states and Canada, along with a satellite help centers in Haiti and Pakistan. Their goal is not only to feed the hungry but also to promote tolerance and offset media stereotypes.
“I try to educate people about Muslims,” says volunteer, Raza “Ali” Mansoor, 38, of Sayreville, who greets visitors at the door. “Your average person is pretty nice but they might be misinformed. A lot of groups like the tea party, I guess you’d call it a lack of education, lack of exposure.”
Hassan stresses that he hopes to teach people about Islam but there’s no agenda to convert them.
“We pushed more and more after 9/11 to educate people of other faiths,” he explains. “We want to education to media, education to public and educate ourselves.”
The group is redefining the soup kitchen as a place where dinner is custom cooked and served restaurant-style. Instead of relying on donations, Hassan purchases ingredients at Costco. Soup is only an occasional menu item and after the kitchen is closed, the volunteers dine on the leftovers.
“People think it’s older stuff that people don’t want anymore but this is fresh and warm and healthy,” says volunteer, Sumera Ansari of Dover, a recent Rutgers graduate. “It’s eye opening for us because we get people from all different backgrounds who don’t have money for a healthy meal.”
The members of Muslims Against Hunger cook South Asian dishes because their custom is to share meals with the poor rather than handing out canned goods. When Hassan was growing up in Pakistan, his mother would prepare extra plates of dinner for a widow who lived down the block.
“Feeding the poor is built into our psyche,” says Hassan, 62, a father of three who immigrated in 1973 to study biometrics at Cornell University.
He adds, “There is a prayer that says if you went to bed, stomach full, and your neighbor is hungry, you have not fulfilled your obligation as a Muslim.”