For the thousands who've moved to Portland from Muslim countries, halal butchers and markets are a crucial lifeline not only to their homeland, but to simple sustenance. Comparable to kosher shops for observant Jews, halal butchers serve the only meat that devout Muslims in Portland are allowed to eat—not to mention some of the only decent places to get a leg of goat or lamb in this town, along with spices and sauces often not found elsewhere.
And in East Portland, the home of the halal butcher is outer Southeast Division Street.
From the intersection of Division and 122nd Avenue, you will find three halal markets in as many blocks—Division Halal Meat Market, Mingala International Market, and Tawakal Halal Grocery all cater to a highly multicultural population that includes immigrants from Somalia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Burma.
The oldest and most comprehensively stocked of these is Mingala International Market (2548 SE 122nd Ave., 503-954-1346), tucked away in a busy strip mall with a Pizza Baron and Final Table Poker Club. Owner Yusuf Iqbal started the store so he could bring in all the specialty fish pastes, fermented tea leaves, banana blossoms and other ingredients necessary for Burmese home cooking. He later began stocking products from across Asia, Africa and the Middle East to accommodate his neighbors, making his shop one of the most diverse in East Portland. There's a cut-to-order meat counter where you may hear someone inquire about the price for a whole young goat, and a freezer stocked with fish, some of which look to be the size of a whole young goat.
Division Halal Meat Market (12659 SE Division St., 971-544-7756, divisionhalalmeatmarket.weebly.co) started as a butcher shop in 2012, and last year added a bakery that makes khubz—the Arabic word for bread—which in this case is a spongy flatbread with charred bubbles of dough that comes from the inferno-hot tandoor oven. When possible, the market sources Oregon-grown and sustainably raised lamb, beef and goat from Springfield's Mohawk Valley Meats. If you ask nicely, the shop will even make you a cup of profoundly rich Turkish coffee in a hammered copper pot called an ibrik.
Tawakal Halal Grocery (12350 SE Division St., 503-477-7203) opened in 2011, but was recently passed on to new owners from Burma—they're still in the process of stocking shelves and refrigerators while waiting for their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program certification, an essential credential in an often poverty-stricken neighborhood. But on our visit, they had a basket of the prickly and alien-looking balsam pear, okra and lemongrass, a dry goods section with a painter's palette of dried lentils, plus handmade samosas and flaky Indian pastries called khaja, with plans to branch out into foods for the neighborhood's Afghan and Somali populations.
Most of the products at these shops will not fit neatly into a New York Times recipe, nor will you find them at New Seasons or Whole Foods. That's exactly what makes them so vital.