Muslim Foodies: The blog that wants to be your guide to halal in New York City
They join the countless Turkish food spots dotted throughout the city and giving their verdict on all of them is a trio of Muslim women known as the Muslim Foodies - Jiniya Azad, Tahirah Baksh, and Sameen Choudhry.
Like any other New Yorkers, Azad, Baksh and Choudhry are passionate about the food they eat.
Azad says she craves dumplings dipped in chilli oil - the more delicate, the better. Baksh finds joy in pizza, noodles, and the occasional spicy chicken sandwich, while Choudhry says she can't live without biryani, a spiced rice dish eaten in Pakistan and India, and the classic American chicken wing.
Typically found walking into a restaurant holding an iPhone rigged to a bright ring light, Azad admits she bought her phone for the sole purpose of taking good photos of food.
“This kind of thing was unheard of. Muslim halal restaurant reviews. Halal restaurants in the food scene. You never really saw stuff like that,” Azad says about the blog, which produces written and video reviews of halal restaurants in New York and elsewhere in the US.
There's clearly a demand for the service they provide amongst Muslims living in, or visiting, the Big Apple, with more than 77,000 followers on Instagram and over 83,000 followers on TikTok at the time of publication.
'A lot of (restaurants) don’t really mark themselves as halal'
- Sameen Choudhry, Muslim Foodies
The women met when they were undergraduate students at the City College of New York, and their bond (a sisterhood, as they call it) remains intact years later.
Their journey into food blogging also started on campus and has its roots in a struggle that many Muslims living in the West will be familiar with: finding halal food.
That recognition of that difficulty led to the realisation that they could help others facing the same issue.
Azad says she wondered, “Why not just put it all in one central place and make reviews about halal restaurants?” And that's how Muslim Foodies was born in early 2017.
“Through our own struggle we’re making it easier for the Muslim community to find halal eats and are helping out restaurants,” Choudhry says.
Educating on halal
The blog serves as a guide to halal eateries and also as a platform educating people about what halal means - food that is prepared according to Islamic law and is therefore permissible for a Muslim to eat.
The trio believe their following keeps growing because the halal dining scene in New York has long been overlooked.
"In the dining scene there isn’t much consideration for halal dietary restrictions," says Azad, adding: "There’s also still a lot of awareness that needs to be built around Muslim halal eating. Alhamdulillah, it is getting there, slowly but surely.”
Along with their work on their popular food blog, each of the women has a day job. Azad is a graphic designer and photographer, Baksh works as a medical scribe, and Choudhry is currently working as an orthopaedic physician assistant.
For years the trio would choose a new spot to hang out at, write a review about what they ate, and post a few pictures of the dishes on Instagram.
At first, they picked spots around their West Harlem campus but, after they graduated, they would visit new places and this expansion of coverage helped grow their fan base.
Readers would also let them know about new restaurants that they had heard about and the trio would check them out.
“People are already on Instagram, already looking for food, so when they see a page that acts as a resource for this kind of thing, it’s like you can’t stop doing it,” Azad says.
Sometimes the group had to actively search out places that had halal food. Azad spent her days typing in keywords like “halal” or “Muslim food” on review sites like Yelp, Infatuation, and zabihah.com.
“A lot of (restaurants) don’t really mark themselves as halal. And you have to dig and find out for yourself,” Choudhry says.
“We also try to find restaurants from different cultures, versus our regular desi (South Asian) or Middle Eastern food that we would eat. Those are the most popular halal spots.”
'At the end of the day, these restaurateurs are small business owners, they have to put food out on the table every night,'
- Jiniya Azad, Muslim Foodies
The blog also helps identify eateries that are “partially halal,” meaning only some items on the menu are designated halal, typically chicken.
“We obviously try the partially halal restaurants and we always check whether or not they are using different utensils and pots and pans, and yes we will go to that extent,” Choudhry says.
The trio rate restaurants on several different aspects: food, price, atmosphere, and service.
Throughout their years running a food blog, the group has developed a strong relationship with their readers and with restaurant owners. Their fans engage with their posts and follow up with their own opinions of reviewed places.
Sometimes restaurant owners reach out to Muslim Foodies asking them to check out their establishment, hoping that a thumbs up from the trio will drive business up.
Under every Instagram post, the women make sure to note whether they paid for their own meal or whether it was complimentary.
Something the trio is very careful about is not being overly critical of the restaurants that they visit and review.
They say they know how much time and effort goes into running a food business and, if the food at a spot isn’t up to their liking, they will make sure to highlight something else about the place that others might find appealing.
“Our reviews are very to the point, and very honest,” says Baksh, continuing: “A lot of people say, ‘Well because you guys rated it X, Y, and Z, we are not going’, but we always tell them to just go.
"We review the place so other people can know about it, not to say ‘Please don’t go here.’ And I think the majority of our followers appreciate that.”
Part of the reviewing process, they say is acknowledging that one experience at a restaurant might not be typical of other experiences at the same place.
“That was a learning point for us," Azad says. "People will say the customer is always right. But you also see the perspective of the restaurant, too. Maybe it was a slow day, maybe they didn't have many staff working that day."
Part of the satisfaction for the work they do comes not only from making sure customers are happy but also helping restaurants get the word out about their food.
“At the end of the day, these restaurateurs are small business owners, they have to put food out on the table every night," Azad says.
"When people call us and say ‘Thank you so much, we grew our following and people came from seeing your video on TikTok,’ these kinds of things make us happy...It makes it worth it.”
Handling a large platform can sometimes come at the expense of authenticity, the young women acknowledge. People believe that because they run such a large page, their reviews aren’t always impartial.
“We’re literally three girls going to different restaurants eating and being regular customers. We don't expect anything and we don't ask for special treatment,” Baksh says of such criticisms. “We just go and review restaurants and people love it.”