Celebrity chefs gave cooking classes, the air was thick with the smell of cuisines from all corners of the globe, children sampled sweets and desserts, and grown-ups bought cooking utensils and raw ingredients.
It was a haven for foodies but with one crucial difference: everything was halal.
This weekend saw London’s Excel Centre play host to Britain’s first Halal Food Festival, a three-day event to which organisers hoped to attract more than 20,000 visitors.
Fittingly the culinary extravaganza also coined its own term: haloodies.
It’s a concept festival co-founders Noman Khawaja and Imran Kausar said they hoped would have mileage.
The idea for the festival came one night when Mr Khawaja, a former dentist, and Mr Kausar, a medical doctor by training, were sitting at home discussing how to combine their love of food with Muslim dietary restrictions.
Those restrictions have too often meant that Muslims have had to compromise on certain aspects of quality of life, said Mr Khawaja for instance, having to either holiday only where halal food is readily available or eat only fish during their break.
“We thought, why should that be, how can we both meet dietary restrictions and not restrict the experience.”
And, as third and fourth-generation immigrants have become an established part of British society, a growing Muslim population that already counts some 2.7 million people is demanding more, said Mr Kausar.
“There is a niche in the market. There is a whole generation of young professional Muslims out there that are demanding more variety in their diets, whose palates are more adventurous.”
These, he said, are the “haloodies”.
But the festival was not meant just for Muslims.
Mr Khawaja pointed out that the recent horsemeat scandal in Britain, in which poorly sourced supermarket meat had in some cases turned out to be almost all horsemeat, had prompted Britons generally to ask questions about how their meat is prepared.
And of the more than 100 exhibitors in hall N6 at the ExCel London, Europe’s biggest expo centre and part of the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company, there were several non-Muslim businesses.
The most popular among them was a stand for Gaucho BBQ, an Argentine-themed catering company that uses only halal-certified South American meat but is otherwise not specifically aimed at any particular market.
“This has been a great experience for us,” said founder, director and chef, Yoav Kushnirov, nodding at a queue that snaked around several corners and across the exhibition floor. The stall, he said, had sold out all 350 kilos of beef and lamb brought to the event.
Also happy for the exposure was Muayad Ali, head chef at La Sophia, a central London French-Mediterranean restaurant.
Halal is a lifestyle, he said, pointing out that in addition to a certain process of slaughter of livestock, the term – meaning permissible or lawful – is also meant to enjoin believers not to drink alcohol or eat pork or pork products.
As such both Muslims and non-Muslims sometimes think of halal food as “something different”.
“But it’s just that the animal is slaughtered in a certain way. After that, anything that’s done to it is still halal – you can certainly have a rare steak.”
Mr Ali said he had particularly enjoyed sharing his “passion” with visitors.
Along with the celebrity chefs Jean Christophe Novelli, a Michelin award winner, and Chelina Permalloo, winner of Masterchef UK 2012, Mr Ali offered free cooking lessons over the festival’s duration.
And it was the enthusiasm of the crowd that had impressed Amina Elshafei, the Australian chef who came 11th in the 2012 edition of Masterchef Australia but whose cheerful demeanour won a following across the world. Indeed she was, according to Mr Khawaja, the first name on the list when they asked fellow “haloodies” who they wanted to see at the festival.
She cooked on all three days, demonstrating how to make pulled chicken with couscous and raisins, quails with a lentils salad and, finally, a Scotch fillet with candied walnuts and beetroot salad. And she thoroughly enjoyed herself.
“The boys have done well,” Ms Elshafei said, referring to Mr Khawaja and Mr Kausar, and said she thought similar events could catch on across the world.
“You’ve got the crowds, you’ve got the enthusiasm, and I think it appropriately exposed halal food at its best.”
The festival – which was in part sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority – certainly proved inspiring to at least one visitor.
Saeed Akhtar, 30, from Leytonstone in East London, stood almost at the back of the long line to taste a Gaucho steak.
But he didn’t mind, he said with a smile. The size of the line and the crowd in general only gave him confidence for what he said was his own first venture into the food industry, Los Asados, a South American-style halal restaurant for which he had already secured premises in his predominantly Asian Muslim neighbourhood.
He had not heard the term “haloodies” before, but it made sense when explained to him.
“There is a growing trend among young Muslims to want more exotic food,” he said, adding, with a smile: “Certainly, most of my friends now think they are food critics of some sort.”
Source: The National