My Halal Kitchen is, undoubtedly, one of the most welcome websites for people who like to try new, healthy and, most importantly, halal recipes. Yvonne Maffei, the Publisher and Founder of this website, shares delicious recipes for all seasons and from all around the world.
We interviewed Sister Yvonne to find out why she wrote her cookbook, how the recipes were chosen, why she travels to Türkiye, what she thinks about Turkish cuisine, and more.
Please tell us what inspired you to write your cookbook “MY HALAL KITCHEN: Global Recipes, Cooking Tips, and Lifestyle Inspiration” and your intentions behind creating your website.
First of all, I’d like to thank you for the kind introduction. My intention in creating the site has always been to share globally inspired halal food and recipes.
I’ve been an international cuisine lover all my life. I became Muslim in my late 20’s and began eating halal at that time, which also meant that I had to find new ways to eat my favorite American dishes as well as those of my parents’ heritage: Sicilian and Puerto Rican. Writing this book was an extension of my desire to share my findings of the tastiest innovations and substitutions I had come up with over the years to make any type of cuisine halal. I wanted to show that not only was it possible, but it was quite easy to do as well.
We greatly appreciate your desire to share your findings with all of us. It helps us to think outside the box and let us be creative using your tips. Before you add a new recipe to your site or your book what are the criteria that make you select that specific recipe? How did you choose what would be included in your book?
I write what I love to eat and what I also find to be deliciously simple. I don’t enjoy complicated cooking or things with ingredients that are too exotic or impossible to find, so I generally start from there. I also relish the idea of opening up a world of possibilities to my readers, giving them ways they can enjoy cuisines that they may have never approached before because of the assumption that there wouldn’t be a halal way to make it.
As far as my cookbook recipes, I chose the dishes that came from the cuisine categories not typically from the Muslim world that I felt most people would like to taste, but weren’t sure how they should taste with a halal substitute: American, Latin, French, Italian and Asian. I provided classical dishes with healthy, all-natural substitutes for wine and other alcohols as well as for pork. I also provided recipes for things like homemade breads, cheeses, condiments and gelatins because they are important types of food products that often contain non-halal ingredients when bought at many grocery stores.
You operate a successful website that many Muslims and non-Muslims are learning new and halal recipes from. And now we know the reason why. Your recipes appeal to everyone’s taste buds. How is My Halal Kitchen a dawah effort in this regard?
By explaining the true meaning of halal and how it is lived in our everyday lives, I believe it can help everyone (Muslim or not) to understand not just the how, but also the reasons why we follow this divine practice in our lives. It’s important to lift the veil on information and open up a discussion with others so that there is more understanding on things like this that most people would not know unless they were inside of our homes and communities.
Our dietary restrictions eliminate many different types of dishes from our list to explore. However, with your recipes and the way you try to expand the options available to Muslims, we can say that this is not true anymore. But out of curiosity let us ask: How do you eliminate non-halal ingredients in your recipes without affecting the quality of your dishes?
Thank you for saying that. I really am trying to open up the wonderful, abundant and delicious world of global cuisine to anyone interested in eating halal. I try to do that not by elimination, but by substitution. Since I did not grow up Muslim, I have tasted many non-halal ingredients so I can understand the flavor profile of the dishes that are frequently not available for Muslims to eat. As a halal cook, I test recipes by substituting the non-halal ingredient with a halal one with a similar flavor base. For example, white wine is made from white grapes so I begin my testing with a variety of white grape juices and go on testing and tasting from there until I find the best flavor and quantity for a particular recipe.
Your background truly makes you the ideal person to bring typically non-halal cuisines into the halal world. Are non-Muslims interested in your book and recipes as well?
Yes, many non-Muslims are interested in my book and my recipes, Alhamdulillah. When I speak about halal during my book tours or presentations, I speak about the transparency of the process of halal certified products and about the farm to fork process that makes an animal zabiha halal -a delicate matter when discussing the sacrifice of the animal- but a necessary one to explain the logistics and the science of how and why it’s done in its own particular way. Once this is explained properly, people can see a clear picture of what makes the halal process what it is and they also begin to understand what’s really in our food from a food industry perspective and why we must check all of our products thoroughly for halal assurance. It’s a very interesting topic and one that anyone, Muslim or not, can understand and appreciate.
Your presentations and book tours must be an eye opening and educational experience for the attendees. Living in the United States, what kind of difficulties have you encountered in a non-Muslim country when it comes to halal nutrition and consumption?
Living in a country with an advanced and complex food production system is a privilege, but it also comes with certain disadvantages we are learning about more and more in recent years. There is a good level of transparency and traceability in our food products, which helps us to know and understand what’s in our food, but at the same time, food science is developing to a level of unprecedented heights where a certain food product can start out as natural but end up as a “franken fruit” item where it is no longer recognizable as natural anymore.
Additionally, the issue of GMO food has not been discussed thoroughly enough in the halal industry, in my opinion, and I really do believe we need to connect scholars to food scientists and farmers and seed producers to basically convene, discuss and determine the halal status of these types of foods.
We totally agree with you on this issue and also think that home cooking is extremely important because it helps us avoid processed foods as much as possible. Speaking of home cooking, it reminds us of Türkiye, our home country. We follow your posts related to Türkiye on Instagram and we find them engaging and interesting. What was your first impression about Türkiye and which cities you have visited thus far?
Thank you, I’m glad you’ve been enjoying them! I absolutely love the balanced blend of modern with historic in this country, which was most notable to me when I visited Istanbul. It’s such a fantastic, energetic city and I wish I could explore more of its food and textiles, the Islamic historic sites and more, especially around Old Istanbul. I’ve also visited Karadeniz (the Black Sea region) and southern Türkiye’s Aegean coast in Fethiye/Muğla.The food in Türkiye varies so much, but is always so natural and made in ways that bring out the flavor of the main ingredients. The overall understanding of halal here is one that I align myself with, in that the assurance is one of halal and tayyib (good) and so much care goes into the safety of the ingredients as much as the logistics of halal. I think that’s the standard that all halal certified products should rise to because our bodies are an amana (trust) on us and what we put into it is something we will be asked about on the Day of Judgment so we need to take great care of the body that Allah (swt) gave to us.
Istanbul has a similar effect on everyone who visits the city and we are pleased to hear that you felt the way you did. Where does this special interest about Türkiye come from? What do you think of the people living there?
Even before I was Muslim, something about Türkiye absolutely mesmerized my soul. It took me a very long time to finally be able to visit the country, but once I did I knew I was in the right place. It’s such a wonderful blend of old and new, west and east, and at the core of it all you are surrounded by such important historic sites in Islamic history. I also love that you can pray your salah in a neighborhood cami (mosque) with some of the most beautiful artwork and architecture in the world.
I find Turkish people to be helpful, well-mannered, respectful to elders, and really interested in their food. They’re hospitable and family-oriented, too, which makes it a great place for families to vacation and feel respected and safe.
We are happy to hear all the good things that you mentioned about Türkiye, thank you. As we saw from your website, you are very familiar with delicious recipes from 20 different cuisines from around the world. (American, Asian, Korean, Caribbean, Puerto Rican, European, French, Italian, Scandinavian, Spanish, Hispanic, Mexican, Mediterranean, Greek, Middle Eastern, Gulf Style, North American, Moroccan, South Asian and Indian cuisines masha’Allah.) How do you like Turkish cuisine? Do you think Turkish food is likable by Americans or by all people in that matter?
I’ve always loved Turkish food, even before coming to visit the country, but being here and exploring more regions I fell in love with it even more because of how steeped in local, natural foods it is. Every place is a little different, but everywhere you go you will find a certain jam or honey that is from the region you’re visiting; the butter and cheeses are real and locally made by villagers; the farmers markets are a spread of everything growing locally. That’s a chef’s dream come true! I think anyone and everyone can appreciate and enjoy that!
Have you considered writing a cookbook about Turkish cuisine?
If it’s something my readers would want to learn, then I would consider the possibility of writing a Turkish cookbook.
We are really curious about what makes a recipe Italian, American or Turkish? Is it the spices or the way you cook it?
It depends on the flavor bases used in cooking the dishes and specific spices used. For example, whenever I’m cooking something I want to have an Italian flavor, I start out with a light sauté of garlic and tomato and then add just a little onion, if any. If I’m making something Middle Eastern, I sauté onion and tomatoes as a base flavor; for South Asian food it has to be onion, garlic and ginger, etc. It all starts with that base of flavor.
What do you find most rewarding and most challenging about your work?
I just love to see the beauty of food and to share that with the world. I think fruits, vegetables, flowers and all things in nature for us to consume are simply stunning works of art by Allah (s.w.t.) and by capturing them in photos, I’m able to savor it, appreciate it and share it for others to do the same. That is the most gratifying part to me. The most challenging part is keeping up with the amount of things I want to share. I see so many amazing and beautiful things that could fill up many lifetimes, so I have to choose what I share with the limited amount of time that I have.
My Allah (s.w.t.) give barakah to your time so that you can continue to share your new recipes with your readers. Do you think that there are rules and aesthetics in serving the food?
Different cultures have different sets of rules and norms, so depending where you are serving the food and to whom, then varying ‘rules’ apply. At the end of the day, you cannot go wrong when you respect your guest by serving whatever you can offer in the most honorable way. I think this is a universal truth, however, as Muslims we know there is adaab (good manners, courtesy and respect) in all that we do and that the guest is very important in Islam, as revealed in the Holy Qur’an and numerous ahadith.
Being half Sicilian and half Puerto-Rican, you grew up with a rich tradition of eating homemade food from both cultures. Can you elaborate on that?
Yes, Alhamdulillah I did grow up with a rich experience of homemade food in my childhood. My paternal grandmother was an astounding cook who kept the Sicilian traditional recipes alive and thriving by passing down many of her recipes to my Aunts, who then passed those down to the rest of us. My maternal grandmother was said to be a fantastic cook and lover of not only Puerto Rican food, but other Caribbean inspired dishes. Although I didn’t get to taste much of her food, I am told that my cooking style resembles hers in many ways in that she was adventurous and unafraid to try new things that her family could enjoy. My mom was also a fantastic cook who loved to make family meals, desserts and cookies.
You have a beautiful family history, Masha’Allah. As we are observing the holy month of Ramadan, can you recommend or share a special, easy to make, and flavorful dish that you like to make for this time of the year?
There are so many recipes to share that it’s hard to choose! I like to think of something sweet and very Sicilian as it resonates with my cultural upbringing, with a halal twist. My recipe for Lemon Tiramisu has a halal substitute for any alcohol that might be included in the original version and since we’re experiencing a summer Ramadan, it’s light enough to make for these warmer temperatures since it’s a no-bake recipe. The recipe can be found in my cookbook, My Halal Kitchen: Global Recipes, Cooking Tips, Lifestyle Inspiration, which is available on Amazon.
I also have another book that is very useful for Ramadan cooking, called Summer Ramadan Cooking: Recipes & Resources for Healthy Meals All Month Long, also available on Amazon Kindle or in paperback version.
Your Lemon Tiramisu sounds exquisite. Food always brings people together and warms the hearts especially if it’s delicious.
Thank you for your time and we wish you success in all your future endeavors.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my passion for food and cooking. Afiyet Olsun and Ramadan Mubarak!
Interview by Filiz Arslan