msnbc.com
updated 6/9/2006 9:24:56 AM ET 2006-06-09T13:24:56

FLORENCE, Italy — Italian cuisine is prized worldwide, with bistecca alla Fiorentina — or Florentine steak  — a must for meat-loving visitors to this city. The succulent, mouth-watering, porterhouse cut reappeared in restaurants this year, after a nearly five-year hiatus due to mad cow disease.

While it was shelved, butcher shops carrying Muslim halal meat opened their doors to the city. And now, despite being a quintessentially Tuscan dish, some of the Florentine steak served in homes and restaurants here follows Islamic dietary restrictions.

“At least seven restaurants buy Florentine steak from us,” said Palestinian Mustafa Abu-Zahu, as he butchered cuts of beef at his family’s halal Mini Market near Florence’s basilica of San Lorenzo.

“They feel that our meat is fundamentally more flavorful,” he said on a recent afternoon, adding that some believe “it’s better for the health.”

Palestinian flags and ornate pages from the Quran decorate the back wall of the Abu-Zahu family store. Pork-free spicy sausages made of turkey and beef line the refrigerator, and fresh sand-colored Moroccan bread is delivered in crates. Rose and orange blossom water, Egyptian fava beans, Tunisian halva, glass tea cups with gold filigree, nargila smoking pipes, and 5 kilogram boxes of Berber couscous crowd the shelves.

Non-Arab foreign foods like American peanut butter (which is a rarity in Italy), soy sauce, and Dijon mustard, are displayed in another section of the store.

With Europe’s Muslim population growing rapidly, halal butcher shops and restaurants are becoming more commonplace, and there is an increased cross-over between Muslim and non-Muslim cuisine. In France, Beurger King Muslim offers halal meat in an American-style burger joint, and 13 out of the 57 Nando's Portuguese-style chicken diners in Britain are halal.

While France and Britain have a long history of immigration from their Muslim-majority ex-colonies, Italy — which invaded East Africa and Libya, but had far more emigrants than immigrants until recently — has only had a sizeable Muslim population for 15 years. But, with around 1 million Muslims now in the country, halal foods are making inroads into the local cuisine alongside North African and Middle Eastern spices.

Halal, haram, and mushbooh
Halal describes foods that are lawful for Muslims to consume, according to the Quran, sayings of the prophet Muhammad, and writings of Muslim jurists. Haram foods are unlawful and prohibited, while mushbooh foods are questionable, and are therefore avoided by many Muslims.

The principle haram foods are pork and pork products, meat from scavengers, and alcohol. Jello and marshmallows are examples of mushbooh foods, as they may contain gelatin obtained from pork. While some Muslims go to great lengths to avoid traces of haram foods, such as the alcohol in toothpaste and soy sauce or enzymes in colorants, many are less rigid in their diet.

“Our meat is killed in the Islamic way,” said Mustafa Abu-Zahu. The animal is not stunned or shot before being slaughtered, instead “the throat is cut and the blood drains out.”

“The animals are the same; they are all from here in Italy. Before killing them they say ‘in the name of God’ and then they kill them — that’s the difference between our meat and Italian meat,” the 30-year-old said.

“The Jews slaughter their meat in almost the same way as us,” he said, adding that “if halal food’s available, Muslims should eat it, second best is Jewish food, and third is Christian.”

Mustafa is the youngest of three brothers from Bethlehem — the others being 40-year-old Marzouq and 36-year-old Mohammed — who run the 2-year-old Mini Market behind Florence’s covered central market and outdoor leather jacket stalls.

There are five halal butcher shops in Florence, all of which have opened within the last five years, while there are several dozen more in the big cities of Rome and Milan.

All of the Mini Market’s meat comes from three slaughterhouses in Italy, where professional Muslim butchers from Morocco and Egypt work in the same buildings as Italian butchers, according to Mohammed.

The Muslim sectors of the slaughterhouses and the Mini Market have been certified by the Islamic Community of Florence and Milan, which checks that the animals are killed according to Islamic law and that no pork products have contaminated the areas where it is killed, packaged, or by the knives used on it.

80 percent of customers are Muslim
Standing behind the meat counter in his white apron stained with blood, Mustafa described the various types of meat, showing Italian cuts like the Florentine steak — which he said were not commonly eaten by Arabs — and explaining that Tunisians preferred lamb, while Moroccans purchased more beef.

“But, Palestinians eat it all!” he joked, adding that at home “I eat more Italian food than Arab.”

The brothers said that around 80 percent of their customers were Muslim immigrants from across the Islamic world, and that the other 20 percent were made up of Italians, Americans, Spaniards, and other foreigners.

Many of their Italian customers usually buy organic products and purchase halal meat because “there is much less disease,” Mustafa said.

“The diseases leave with the blood and the body becomes more relaxed and more tranquil; it doesn’t remain hot or dirty inside.” he said.

“On our certificate the doctor said that there is less chance of disease than with other animals.”

“And the restaurants that buy the Florentine steak (from us) are very happy because they receive lots of compliments on the meat, saying it has a lot of flavor,” he said.

Barbarous slaughter?
While some proponents of halal and kosher foods argue that their forms of slaughter are healthier than others, animal rights groups have argued that killing animals without stunning them first results in prolonged and inhumane suffering. And decades-old bans on ritual killing have been upheld in Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Individuals and groups who oppose Muslim immigration have also spoken out against halal food.

At the end of 2005, the far right political party La Lega Nord (The Northern League) wrote on is Web site: “Florentine steak will finally return to our tables on the 1st of January, but our hope is that it won’t be served vertically like a kebab; this is perhaps the kind of fear that wafts into a culinary world that has profoundly changed since the Florentine steak disappeared from our plates.”

As the Northern League campaigned for the purity of Tuscan food, Oriana Fallaci, a controversial Italian journalist declared, “Halal butchery is barbarous.”

While the party and the journalist are both well known and have influence in the country, neither can be said to be representative of Italians. In fact, highlighting her extreme views, Falacci recently told a reporter for the New Yorker magazine that if the planned construction of a mosque in Tuscany was carried out, ‘I blow it up!”

Italians 'are changing'
“In the beginning it was very hard,” the oldest of the brothers, Marzouq, said of selling halal meat.

“The Italian people are not like the American people or the European people; they are more closed; it is like 50 years back; it’s not metropolitan,” he said.

“But now, in the last five years they are changing, they are more open,” and “they are curious,” he said.

“In the last year there are many (Italians) who are coming (to buy our meat) one, two times a week.”

At the end of the millennium, there were very few foreign restaurants in Florence, most of which catered to American and Japanese tourists and students. But, a much wider variety of food is now available, with many of the new restaurants serving North African and Middle Eastern cuisine.

While some argue for the purity of Italian food, many of the items considered typically Italian were actually introduced over the centuries: Traditional mozzarella cheese comes from Indian water buffalo, the tomato was brought back from the New World, and while historians have debunked the myth that Marco Polo discovered pasta in China, many now believe it was introduced from the Arab world.

Halal Florentine steak may just be continuing the pattern of culinary evolution.

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