8,500 converge on this year's Halal Festival 2.0 in Newark

Well before noon on Saturday, the smell of meat being cooked over an open fire carried in the air and reached the long line of people stretched out at the entrance to the second annual Halal Food Festival at NewPark Mall.

Most couldn't wait to embark on a halal food eating spree.

And many waiting joked that it was surprising to see so many Muslims getting in line early -- as Muslims from various regions around the world are often notorious for showing up late to such events -- to sample the halal food the Bay Area had to offer.

Many in line said they had shown up early this year, hoping to avoid long lines and waits many experienced during last year's inaugural event, and to sample as many types of food before festival goers started pouring in.

Halal Fest 2.0, touted as a bigger and better festival than last year, offered more food vendors, more entertainment for the whole family and more folks selling items in the bazaar.

Twenty seven food vendors offered everything from Chinese appetizers like potstickers and eggrolls, to Afghan chicken kabob and chapli (ground beef kabob), Pakistani tandoori kabobs on skewers, fusion Mexican food, ice cream, smoothies and more traditional American dishes like fried chicken, hot dogs, burgers and steak. These last four were the most popular dishes being served up at the festival, with the longest lines.

Irfan Rydhan, a self-proclaimed foodie and festival organizer, says that this was to be expected as these are the types of foods that most Muslims who only eat halal, would not be able to eat on a regular basis, which makes it more popular.

"Halal" is Arabic for "permissible," and refers to religious dietary guidelines similar to kosher food for Jews, with pork and alcohol prohibited.

A few things were different this year compared to last year. That included festival-goers paying an admission fee of $3 before the event or $5 at the door and then bought food and drinks directly from the vendors. Last year, attendees purchased food tokens and exchanged them for food.

This year, food vendors were told to expect 7,000 to 8,000, and 8,500 showed up, which meant most festival attendees were able to try a number of the different foods the wanted, unlike last year where vendors were only expecting about 3,000 attendees and 10,000 showed up, causing many vendors to quickly run out of food.

Additionally, there were more activities, rides, live performances and programs for entire families, including a cooking demonstration and three eating contests. The eating contests (with separate events for men and women) to eat as many spicy chicken wings, a large snow cone and Gulab Jaman (a syrupy Pakistani dessert) in the allotted time was a fun spectacle for those gathered to watch.

And festival organizers this year tripled the amount of seating under canopies, from 150 last year to around 500 over the weekend. Still, people were circling around the tents looking for an empty chair or table space to set down their food to eat. As a result, many attendees asked festival organizers to increase the amount of seating for next year.

Attendance of the festival decreased from last year, which Rydhan said he expected, since they were charging admission to get into the festival. He added that he and other organizers received a lot of feedback about how much attendees had enjoyed the food, how the festival was better organized this year and also how they could improve, which included having better signage and providing more seating for people to enjoy the entertainment and the food.

Rydhan said organizers plan on sending out a survey to solicit additional feedback about what they could do to improve the festival experience next time around.

"This was more of what we wanted to do, which was promote the different kinds of halal food and the diversity in the community," he said. "Some people complimented us and said this was like an actual Eid Festival (held at the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan) ...where all the Muslims come together, Sunni, Shia and other groups, people who are religious and people who are not so much, celebrating and enjoying the festival."

By Aliyah Mohammed
Photo by Jubi Matthew

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