Sameer Sarmast dares to offer something many halal eaters only dream of: a day dedicated to halal food, entertainment, cooking demos and an Iron Chef-style contest. Sarmast mixed all these ingredients together to launch the first halal food festival in the United States, under the banner of his online show, Sameer’s Eats.
The Halal Food Tour kicked off at the University of California, Irvine on April 13th to a warm reception. With the New York / New Jersey event taking place on July 7th in Teaneck, NJ, Chicago, D.C. and Houston are also on the itinerary in the near future. Featured guests at the Los Angeles stop included emerging singer/songwriter Mo Sabri, writer and comedian Aman Ali, veteran culinary expert Chef Abdul Eldeib and culinary educator and publisher of the popular food blog My Halal Kitchen, Yvonne Maffei.
Aslan Media’s team sat down with Maffei and the Sameer’s Eats team a day before the Los Angeles event to talk about the idea behind the Halal Food Tour- and how Sarmast developed a passion for food thanks to his mother’s “addiction” to cooking.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Sarmast’s family migrated from India in the early 1970’s. He does not claim to be a cook, nor is he a food critic. With a Master’s degree from Northeastern University, his professional title is actually Financial Advisor. He is, however, a “discoverer” of halal eateries around the country. His online show has an international audience of Muslim and non-Muslim foodies alike. He maintains a mental list of the best halal places in major cities, which naturally makes him the go-to guy for all his friends and family for eating out suggestions. He claims his culinary background, at most, is just “eating, tasting and enjoying” good food.
But at home, its a different story.
Growing up in a Hyderabadi family (Hyderabad is a city in central India known for its Mughal-inspired rich and spicy cuisine), Sameer would watch his mother spend hours in the kitchen cooking food for the family.
“My mom is like, addicted to cooking. My brother is actually looking for programs, like bingo, outside of the house, to keep her busy,” he recalls. “She makes too much food, and if you don’t eat it, she gets offended. We are like, ‘Ma, we can’t eat!’”
His mother brought that deeply rooted Hyderabadi food culture to their local New Jersey community, where she’s known for her cooking. But it’s not just his upbringing that nurtured his love of food; it’s also what he likes to do as a social outing with his friends. “My friends and I like to find new halal spots and that’s how we usually spend our nights,” he says. “We go to the movies, we eat. Everything revolves around food. Its not so much about what we are doing, but what we are eating, really.”
The Sameer’s Eats phenomenon didn’t really start until a few years ago. He began taking pictures of food and sharing them on his Facebook page, and then one day his sister suggested he start his own show where he can go around sharing his experience of halal eating. So in 2010, Sarmast got together with Saad Malik, a longtime acquaintance who offered to provide videography and editing skills to the venture. Together they launched Sameer’s Eats, an online show documenting Sarmast’s halal eating adventures.
With Sarmast’s outgoing personality and Malik’s technical skills, the show’s first episode, filmed at Kabab Paradise, an Afghan restaurant in Lake Hiawatha, New Jersey, was an instant hit.
“The way we measured success was obviously views on YouTube, but most importantly when the restaurant owner calls you up and says, ‘Hey, people watch your video and they are coming in and saying we want what Sameer is having in that video,’ we knew we were onto something.” The restaurant even branded itself around Sameer’s Eats, now sporting the sign “Featured on Sameer’s Eats” on its menu. “The best part was when we released the episode, a week later when Sameer went back to the restaurant just to get food, and the owner goes like, ‘Sameer, we have like, 100 people come since your show!’ and obviously Sameer told them not to exaggerate just to make him feel better,” Malik says, joining in our conversation. “The owner said, ‘No, literally a 100 people came.’”
At that point, the Sameer’s Eats duo knew that they had filled a gap in the Muslim American community, a niche that bridges entertainment and religious education. The show has modeled itself as a lighthearted way of portraying halal eating. “We don’t want people to come to us and ask about the difference between halal and haram, or halal and kosher,” Malik explains. He also pointed out that Sarmast’s entertaining personality and his ability to keep things moving in most situations make the show balanced, “not too religious and not too crazy.” Sarmast also invites Muslim “celebrities” as guests to his show to share the halal eating experience. Featured guests have ranged from rappers to sufis to scholars.
“We are not trying to classify ourselves with anyone or any specific sect,” Malik adds. “We think good food brings people together, and then we add that entertaining aspect around it. Most people don’t get to chill and eat out with imams, but Sameer gets to do that.”
Last year, Faraz Khan joined Sameer’s Eats as the videographer and editor, and Malik become the Creative Director of the team.
Sameer’s Eats has progressed beyond the Muslim community by virtue of social media and, Malik believes, the rise of street food culture in New York has made halal popular. “People have started talking about halal, they don’t know what it means but they are like ‘lets go get some halal today.’ There are many different food carts in New York that are halal, and just because of that the term halal has spread all across the U.S. That’s a big part of what gets us more viewers on YouTube,” he says. “People start looking through our videos, and they don’t think Muslim or non-Muslim.”
The show even enjoys fans as far as Ireland watching and commenting regularly on its videos. “Just the other day I was at a restaurant talking on the phone, and a white guy recognized me from my voice and asked if I was the ‘Youtube guy.’ He went on to share how that place was “the shit,’’ Sarmast recalls. “I guess people do watch our stuff.”
But Sameer’s Eats is not a food critic show; it features only the best halal restaurants and eateries. Don’t expect Sarmast to get on camera and give a halal place the thumbs down. “My business and marketing background gives me the intuition to find out what’s wrong with a restaurant when I walk in. The show itself only highlights the top restaurants,” he continued. “I won’t go on a video bashing a restaurant, and waste their time and mine.”
If you are in the NY/NJ area, be sure to check out the Halal Food Tour yourself this week!
Get tickets here.
*There's more below! Watch our video and browse our pics!"By Alnas Zia, Aslan Media Contributor and Editor and Hend Yahya, Food Contributor (featured on video)