One of the extraordinarily fascinating facets of New York City life is the ethnic concentration that you often find in various businesses and enterprises. And one of those enjoyed by all is the cuisine. This is what makes New York a literal smorgasbord of delectable food from all corners of the globe and one of the biggest allures of the city to visitors.
Halal food carts are to be found everywhere in the city. I was perplexed at the large number featuring a cuisine governed by Islamic dietary stricture- Halal is a term meaning lawful or permissible according to Islamic law, and, as applied to food, is analogous to kosher dietary laws. The number of Halal carts would seem to be disproportionate to the number of potential patrons, but, like many things in this city, the explanation is as much, if not more, about the nature of the vendors than it is by customer demand.
New immigrant groups come to New York City in waves. One barometer is taxi and car service drivers who, in recent years, have been predominantly Bangladeshi (see Lahore here). These drivers account, in large part, for the initial success of the Halal carts. An article from The New York Times explains the evolution:
Sidewalk wisdom holds that Muslims took over the street-cart business in the 1990s from Greeks, who had themselves inherited it from Italians and Germans. Census data broadly supports this chronology. In an analysis of data from 1990, the Queens College sociology department found that 306 first-generation German and Italian New Yorkers identified themselves as members of an occupational category that included the job “street vendor”; by 2005, that figure had dropped to zero. During that period, the number of Greeks in the field rose to 200 from 120, while the number of Egyptians, Bangladeshis and Afghans surged to 563 from 69.
Of course, hungry New Yorkers and visitors are happy to adapt to any new well-prepared cuisine. The Halal cart at 53rd and 6th Avenue is now legendary, with lines as long as 2 hours and even its own Wikipedia page. They have been finalists in the annual Vendy awards. Initially patronized by those of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, this cart, like others, is now frequented by many others.
What's particularly nice about Halal food carts is that they offer complete meals, such as chicken and rice, not just a snack item such as the ubiquitous hot dog from small pushcarts. See a Halal menu here.
And then there is the mysterious, semi-secret white sauce, which has spawned discussions and articles - see here. New Yorkers love this kind of thing - what's better than a secret, mysterious, ethnic, delicious white sauce?