The multiculturalism of the UK capital is famous, and dominating this tapestry in terms of minority groups are those that identify as Muslim. The last census figures, admittedly from way back in 2001, showed that the city is home to over 40% of the UK’s entire Muslim population. Just as incredible is the fact that well over 12% of London residents are Muslim. This enormous population of more than 600,000 individuals spans communities from all over the Islamic world – the venerable Bengali community whose heartland is so famously represented by the many Bangladeshi halal restaurants down East London’s Brick Lane, plus South Asians from Pakistan, Afghanistan and India; Turkish, Cypriot and Bosnian Muslims; Muslims from numerous Arab countries, including a sizeable Iraqi population; Maghreb peoples including those from Algeria and Egypt, as well as East and West African enclaves. Halal restaurants are integral to these London communities. If you’re not familiar with the city’s Islamic cultural landscape but are keen to find out where London’s halal restaurants call home, all you have to do is point yourself in the right direction!
Where exactly will you find halal restaurants in London? It makes sense to search for these diverse Islamic soul food restaurants in the boroughs, districts and neighbourhoods where there are big Muslim populations. A whopping third of residents in the London Boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham – the traditional East End – are Muslim. So, go east for some of the finest of London’s halal restaurants.
Reach this famous stretch with bilingual Bengali and English street signs from Shoreditch High Street or Aldgate East stations and explore some of the best South Asian diasporic cuisine in the world. Brick Lane is the focal point for one of the oldest migrant communities in London, the British Bangladeshi, who do a brisk business serving up spicy, exotic food from a number of London’s best halal restaurants.
The districts of Stepney, Limehouse, Canary Wharf, Stratford, East and West Ham, plus the main street joining Forest Gate to Upton Park tube stations are replete with halal restaurants that London foodies will love. It’s important to remember that halal cuisine is not necessarily Arabic or Middle Eastern in origin – you can easily find Pakistani, Nepalese and even Chinese food that bears the imprint of global Muslim culinary culture.
While the East End of London may be home to most of the city’s Muslim population, central and west London halal restaurants are worth a booking. There’s a clutch of Lebanese, Persian-Iranian and Malaysian halal restaurants between London’s Regent’s Park (where you’ll find the Central Mosque) and Hyde Park – all within shouting distance of the capital’s famous landmarks.
Halal is an Arabic word that simply means ‘permissible’, similar to the Yiddish ‘kosher’, meaning fit for consumption in accordance with religious law. Although the concept of halal supervises many aspects of daily life for Muslims, the term is most often connected to food and drink, indicating what is allowed to be consumed as opposed to what is forbidden (‘haram’), or that a given food product has been processed, handled, and prepared appropriately. Halal meat, notably, must be slaughtered by a Muslim. The animal, while it can be stunned, must be slaughtered by having its throat cut with a sharp blade; it cannot be killed by a violent blow or by other methods. Animals that have been killed by another animal or died naturally, i.e. carrion, are not to be consumed. Meat carcasses are then hung and drained of blood. In addition, the carcass must be aligned with the ‘qibla’, the direction of Mecca, and the prayer 'bismillah' ("in the name of God") must be spoken, expressing humility and gratitude for the taking of a life in return for sustenance.
Pork is perhaps the best known food that is absolutely ‘haram’, or prohibited, as it is under Judaic law. It’s suggested that the taboo – under Islam, Judaism, and even in Highland Scotland until about 1800! – originates in the negative perception of pigs’ hygiene. Under Islamic law, foods prepared from blood are also forbidden – you won’t find black pudding for breakfast in a halal restaurant here in London or anywhere else! It’s also widely known that alcohol is proscribed as non-halal, so if you’re not a practicing Muslim but are looking to book a table at a London halal restaurant, don’t expect to find bottles of beer and wine on the menu, let alone a sommelier. What will you find at a halal restaurant? For one, vegetarian food is entirely halal, and far from being restrictive you’ll find a hugely diverse selection of African, Middle Eastern, South, Central, and East Asian restaurants in London flying the flag for halal cuisine. Happy eating – bismillahi wa 'ala baraka-tillah!