In the back alleys of Fordsburg Square, a woman spoons spiced water, or pani, into hollowed puris, a deep-fried, unleavened bread that is stuffed with potato. Pocketing the R10 from a customer, she looks up to serve us, and asks a question that leaves us questioning everything we hold holy.
“Puris, machine cut, or hand cut?”
Panicked, we look at each other, searching our flimsy grasp of the propriety of street food.
“Handmade,” we answer, impressed that our endless quest for sensory salvation has fallen victim to a late onset of the industrial revolution.
The probing continues.
“Mild or spicy?”
That one’s easier.
We are, after all, children of this place. And we know there are no prizes, in this world or the hereafter, for braving chilli.
We were reared along streets teeming with history but oblivious to their heritage. We were reared in its lack and we came of age in the shadow of its aspiration. We moved on. Some of us moved away. But even now, it is along these streets that we know we can find nourishment.
A short walk from the pani puri vendors, you can sample pink Kashmiri tea, south Indian dosas, Palestinian shawarmas, Turkish kebabs and Mozambican prawns. There certainly are options enough. But for people with dietary restrictions everywhere else in the city, it is not just variety that lures us to Fordsburg.
For Muslim people living in Johannesburg, Fordsburg is the traditional home of halaal food in the city. The word “halaal” means “permissible” in Arabic, and when it comes to food, it describes sustenance prepared according to the prescripts of Islamic law.
In the Qur’an in Surah Al-Baqarah 2:168, Allah commands Muslims to “eat from whatever is on Earth [that is] halaal and good and do not follow the footsteps of Satan. Indeed, he is to you a clear enemy.”
Another passage reads: “And eat of what Allah has provided for you [which is] halaal and good. And fear Allah, in whom you are believers.”
For food to meet these prescripts, meat must come from an animal that was killed according to specific rituals. The animal must have been alive and healthy when it was slaughtered, and the kill must come from a cut to the jugular veins, the carotid artery and the windpipe.
For us city folk who are more likely to slice our own fingers than an animal’s arteries, suffice it to say it is a bloody business.
We are taught that once the throat of the animal is slit the animal no longer feels any pain because the brain is deprived of blood and it loses consciousness.
This is, of course, an act of faith. And the macabre is also balanced out by an invocation to Allah.
Muslims are meant to recite a dedication to Allah, “In the name of Allah, Allah is the greatest” during the act of slaughtering. It is meant to be an acknowledgement of the dominion of Allah. It is testimony to a feeling of subservience to a being greater than that moment and its power.
But halaal doesn’t just refer to how an animal is slaughtered.
There’s also the little matter of no pork and alcohol allowed. And then there are variances of interpretation in the complexities that further dictate what foods are permissible to be consumed and what not. These are complexities worthy of thorough study by Islamic theologians. So fierce, however, are the disagreements over these interpretations that there are at least four halaal certification bodies in South Africa.
When the “halaality” of Rainbow chickens was scrutinised about five years ago, for the first time questions were asked about the handling of chickens before they made it to supermarket shelves. The conditions of mass production and the consequences of mass consumption were unravelled for a people searching for a halaal stamp on their poultry.
But it ultimately degenerated into a squabble over how many chickens could be slaughtered in a minute — and any understanding of the poverty wages paid to the black men slaughtering those thousands of chickens was never quite revealed.
Because even the debate over the chickens was ultimately a proxy battle in a greater disagreement among leading Muslim clerics. And when power is contested, so too is money.
Halaal certification bodies earn a tidy sum for their work to ensure that the Muslim community is not being deceived into the consumption of food that is not, well, halaal. They say there is little left over when their work is done, but that is a debate for another day. The stipends earned by these bodies are, however, another mark of the value of that halaal stamp for producers.
In the clamour over the rights of that stamp, the public, ritualistic display of halaal food that is now camera-ready has created monsters out of us.
As a foodie culture grows, the halaal foodie culture has its own politics, economics and social norms. Meanwhile, the divine directive for food to be as good for you as much as it is halaal appears to have been lost. So much attention is being focused on what is halaal at a time when poverty wages are the norm. Meanwhile, we believe we can straddle the mass consumption of animals while maintaining humane levels of farming and butchery.
How did we even get here?
For Muslims of my generation, Fordsburg was the first place where we were never forced to contort our meal selection around the possibilities of pork or alcohol tucked in between the sea bass and crème brûlée.
Growing up in the mid-1990s, as the city opened to us, Fordsburg too grew to accommodate new restaurants catering to palates no longer confined to the prescripts of apartheid planning. The tour guides may point to Fordsburg for the city’s best “curry” — a vague term that is supposed to describe any dish bearing even a mild resemblance to Indian food — but Fordsburg’s development in the 1990s is owed more to a culinary search outside of what we were accustomed to.
It was a space that accommodated pockets of togetherness. It was a space that fostered an exploration of what it meant to be a Muslim in post-1994 South Africa, fused together by food.
And the uniting force of food has a long, long history here. From its early days as a mining suburb, Fordsburg was a working-class area. Close to the mines and the city centre, it was developed as a hub of residential accommodation, retail and industrial spaces, bars and eating houses.
History is, of course, never neat, but the history of this city is also not pretty. The city wears the taint of the violence of its history. It wears the taint of the continued violence of its being. Upward mobility in Johannesburg is still equated with movement northwards. Rosebank and Greenside now boast nearly as many halaal restaurants as Fordsburg. Time marches forward. And people are not static. We change. And our use of spaces transforms. And spaces too must admit change, whatever that change means.
And halaal food, as plentiful as it now is, from the physical space of Fordsburg to the moving spaces of Uber Eats, or indeed, “Halaal Food Expos”, has undergone a revolution of its own, a revolution far removed from machine-rolled pani puris on the square.