On a recent evening, Les Enfants Terribles, a Paris restaurant that serves French cuisine cooked with halal meat, was brimming with customers.
Like many French Muslims, Kamil Saidi, who owns the restaurant, says he was disgusted by the recent political kerfuffle over halal, triggered by far right candidate Marine Le Pen’s charge that non-Muslims in Paris were unwittingly eating animals slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law.
Saidi says the debate wasn’t really about meat, but about the far right trying to attract votes in advance of the election in April and May.
He prefers to instead massage cultural tensions the quiet way — by serving an excellent blend of French and Muslim gastronomic traditions.
Even though France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, Saidi says he and his brother — the other enfant terrible — seem to have been the first ones to make French-Halal fusion cuisine official. “It’s astonishing,” he says.
“Growing up I was always frustrated because I love French cuisine, but like all practicing Muslims I had to eat only fish or vegetarian when I went to a restaurant,” says Saidi. “I always wanted to eat my fill of duck and lamb,” but it wasn’t halal.
Now, Saidi can serve all the duck and lamb he wants because he can guarantee it’s halal. Tonight there is fois gras with confit, onions and red berries; Magret de canard, or duck breast in quince sauce; and roasted leg of lamb — all halal, bien sur.
Saidi’s parents emigrated to France from Algeria, and he was born and raised in the Paris suburbs. He says life is good for Muslims in France. When I ask him if there is discrimination, he says, “yes, a kind of gustatory discrimination.” And that’s what his restaurant is setting out to change.
Saidi says he doesn’t advertise his restaurant as halal. “I don’t want to cater to one type of community because then people will put a label on me,” he says.
Word has spread among the young Muslim crowd of Les Enfants Terribles’ delectable fare. Next to me are Karim Nait and Laila Ayb. Nait, who is a chef at another French restaurant, says he doesn’t keep halal, but Ayb does. They say they come here often because the food is delicious and refined.
Saidi also has a large non-Muslim clientele. Many diners walk in off the street not knowing it’s halal, “or that alcohol isn’t served,” Saidi says. “Some diners say, ‘okay, we won’t drink tonight.’ But others leave when they find out they can’t have wine with dinner.”
Tonight, one table of non-Muslim diners certainly didn’t mind going dry. “It’s fabulous,” they tell me. “The meat is really flavorful and it’s just a good French restaurant.”
Halal meat butchers usually have a reputation for quality in France. And with an estimated 6 million Muslims now living here, halal products are becoming increasingly popular. Grocery stores offer halal meats and prepared dishes in their frozen sections and even a fast food chain, Quick, offers halal hamburgers.
The French have also embraced and adopted many dishes from North Africa.
Couscous, the North African dish with a chick pea and vegetable sauce served over semoul, has practically become a French food. And spicy merguez sausages from the Maghreb are now standard fare at any French barbeque. I’m even told that the Couscous Royal — a dish that features beef, chicken and merguez — is a French invention. “In Algeria you only eat couscous with one meat, never all three,” says Nait, the diner.