When Dan met up with Taz Ahmed, she told him, "Eating is so much a part of getting to know someone. Without sharing that, then what is love?" This week on The Sporkful, we celebrate Valentine’s Day with Taz — a writer, activist, and co-creator (with comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh) of the podcast #GoodMuslimBadMuslim. Taz knows something about romance: she contributed to a book called Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives Of American Muslim Women, and then there are her #MuslimVDay cards (pictured above).
Over halal beef ribs and Lebanese-inflected pizza at Big Al's Pizzeria outside of Los Angeles, Dan and Taz talked about food and love — from dating as a Muslim-American to Taz's efforts to recreate the Bangladeshi home cooking she grew up with, after her mom died. Listen in to the full episode to hear Taz's advice for sharing food on a first date (hint: don't get handsy with the tacos!), and why she wishes that guys would stop trying to out-Muslim her.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Sweet Summer Love" by Stephen Clinton Sullivan
- "Stay For The Summer" by William Van De Crommert
- "Give It Up" by Stephen Clinton Sullivan
Photos courtesy of Dan Pashman and Taz Ahmed.
Taz Ahmed: I make Muslim Valentine's Day cards. It kind of started out as a joke. It actually started out on Twitter. I used this hashtag called #MuslimVDay.
Dan Pashman: This is Taz Ahmed. She's a writer, activist and co-host of the podcast #GoodMuslimBadMuslim. We met up at a halal restaurant in L.A.
Taz Ahmed: People seemed very conservative in their ideas of how Muslim women are supposed to experience love. So then I just started joking, like in my head, I started playing around with the ideas of cards and what a Muslim Valentine's Day card would be. So my first year, that was when the TSA screening issue was happening. And I said, "A TSA scan would reveal my heart beats only for you." That was that card. When wiretapping was a big deal in the news, I had one that said, "I'd wiretap that."
Dan Pashman: This year's cards include lines like: "There's no border wall that can keep us apart."
Taz Ahmed: I think it'll work. I think if you give this to your honey, you know, you might get some action.
Dan Pashman: Today on The Sporkful, we celebrate Valentine's Day with Taz Ahmed. We'll talk about sharing food when you're on a date.
Taz Ahmed: I had a boyfriend that would try to feed me off of his fork and it was super annoying. You can't gauge the depth of someone's mouth when you're feeding someone.
Dan Pashman: And dating as a Muslim-American. Then later, Taz talks about trying to recreate the flavors of home after her mom passed away.
Taz Ahmed: Those are the things that I have never gotten taught by my mom that I wish I would have picked up on.
Dan Pashman: That's all coming up. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful. It's not for foodies, it's for eaters. I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people.
Dan Pashman: Big Al's Pizzeria is in Maywood, on the outskirts of L.A. It's in a small strip mall. Inside, they've got eight or 10 hard plastic tables with metal chairs and an open kitchen. It's a pretty standard pizza-place look. But they serve more than pizza. They have wings with a variety of sauces, a barbecue brisket sub, and when I was there, beef ribs. And if you didn't notice the sticker on the door, you might not even know that it's halal. Now, in case you're not familiar, halal is the Arabic word for "permissible." In food, halal is to Islam as kosher is to Judaism. It's a set of dietary laws. For meat to be halal, the animal has to be slaughtered a certain way. Cuts of meat from the hindquarters are not halal, and pork and alcohol are not halal.
Dan Pashman: I was excited to check out a halal place with barbecue, partly because I love beef ribs, but not all barbecue places have them. Big Al's does because they can't serve pork ribs. But really, I was excited because I was invited there by Taz Ahmed. Taz is an activist and artist. She's also co-host of the podcast #GoodMuslimBadMuslim, which she does with comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh. The show features frank talk about politics, sex, current events, relationships, and whatever else is on their minds. I asked Taz to explain the name of the show, #GoodMuslimBadMuslim.
Taz Ahmed: I've been doing stuff in the Muslim and South Asian community for a long time. And there's always this perception of what is a good Muslim. And a good Muslim is one that prays five times a day or covers their hair from the Muslim community. And then from the non-Muslim community, it's someone that doesn't drink and doesn't do drugs. And so everyone has their weird ideas of what it means to be good and what it means to be bad. In growing up, I just always felt like I didn't fit any boxes. What we're really trying to do with the podcast is break the boxes that people are trying to put us in, just show that we're just normal. We have lots of different ideas and that there's a gray zone and you don't have to be good or bad, or that the ideas of good and bad are relative.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Taz Ahmed: And that it's always malleable.
Dan Pashman: Right. Because you don't drink.
Taz Ahmed: Right.
Dan Pashman: You keep halal.
Taz Ahmed: I actually don't keep halal.
Dan Pashman: Okay. But you don't eat pork.
Taz Ahmed: I don't eat pork.
Dan Pashman: OK, so you… but you don't pray all that much.
Taz Ahmed: But I do fast during Ramadan. That's something that is really recentering for me. And I really enjoy the custom and culture and the practice of fasting from sunup to sundown.
Dan Pashman: But you go out to rock shows and you write about sex and you do things that... right. So basically you observe your religion in the way that most people in most religions observe their religion.
Taz Ahmed: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Can I ask a dumb question about halal?
Taz Ahmed: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Is there any... Because I know there are some similarities with kosher, but I know it's not the same.
Taz Ahmed: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Is there any meat-dairy thing?
Taz Ahmed: No, no. There's no meat dairy thing. You know, when we were growing up, we were told that we could have kosher meat. The whole like jello controversy?
Dan Pashman: The gelatin, the pig gelatin.
Taz Ahmed: Yeah. When I grew up in the 80s. So back when I was a kid, Jell-o was everywhere. My mom's like, “You can't eat Jell-o. You had to look at the little box, the jello box and they had a little tiny K on it. And then I was allowed to eat the jello if it was jello with a K. So kosher was actually acceptable for me growing up.
Dan Pashman: You know, can I ask you? I remember the first time that a Muslim friend told me that Muslims who keep halal are allowed to eat kosher meat.
Taz Ahmed: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: But yet people who keep kosher can't eat halal. And the first time I heard that, I'll be honest, I was like, that's kind of messed up.
Taz Ahmed: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: I could understand how some people would hear that and be like, “What? So your food's good enough for us, but our food isn't good enough for you?”
Taz Ahmed: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Did you ever have that reaction?
Taz Ahmed: I don't know. That's silly. I'm just gonna say that's silly. On behalf of all Muslims, I’m saying that's silly.
Dan Pashman: Well on behalf of all Jews, I agree. So there are a lot of Muslim rules that you were raised with that you discarded at a pretty young age. There are some that you have continued to make a part of your life. I note that the ones that you have stuck with are largely the ones around food and drink. Do you have a theory on why that is?
Taz Ahmed: I mean, we grow up with food. Food is love, right? That's so much a part of how we're raised. I was actually thinking about one of things that my mom would always say anytime we were on the phone together. She would always say, she'd always ask, “What did you eat?” I was always so annoyed by that. But like for her, that was her way of love, right? And then whenever you go to someone's house, they're always saying, “Khao.” “Khao” means eat something. And so it's like, khao khao khao. And so I think in that sense, the idea of food and being South Asian is really tied in with love and caring.
Dan Pashman: Love comes up often in Taz's writing. She contributed to a book called Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. We talked about her experience dating. She says one of the most annoying questions she gets is: How come you don't drink?
Taz Ahmed: It's just that assumption that you have to drink, you know, like you have to do anything. Yeah, I grew up in punk culture. I'm a little punk kid. So once I learned about straightedge and how there's this subculture of being punk, which is super, has radical politics and isn't about drinking or doing drugs, I was really drawn to that.
Dan Pashman: How does not drinking affect your dating life?
Taz Ahmed: The weird thing about dating as a Muslim is that once a guy starts liking you, they'll start picking up Muslim-y habits. So like I actually was dating someone that decided to stop eating pork because he was dating me. And he was like, “I'm not doing it for you, I'm doing it for health benefits.” I'm just like, no, wait, hold on here. Like you were fine with bacon before. Like, what are you trying to do? I dated someone whose beard got longer. And you’re just like, what is happening here?
Dan Pashman: You're like, “I already have enough trouble getting on an airplane. I don't need you getting pulled out of security, too!”
Taz Ahmed: Exactly! It’s like, come on. One of us has to not so Muslim-y. Otherwise, we're not going to be able to get anywhere.
Dan Pashman: In terms of what you eat and drink, or don't eat and drink, do you find the dynamic is different when you're dating a Muslim guy versus non-Muslim?
Taz Ahmed: I mean, when you're on a first date, there's always the element of trying to impress you, right? So I remember going on a first date with someone. He's like, let's go get goat tacos. And to him, goat was like, him trying to show how Muslim he is, because Muslim people eat goat apparently. And so it was great. But it was also kind of like, OK, that's fine. But you don't need to do that. But the goat tacos were amazing. It was really good, so good call.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right.
Taz Ahmed: That was silly.
Dan Pashman: You know there’s a lot of different ways, when you're out on a date, to share food with the person that you're out on a date with. And I feel like the way that a person shares food says something about them.
Taz Ahmed: Oh, yeah, for sure. Eating is so much a part of getting to know someone and understanding people's palates and learning about people's families and how they grow up and cultures. It's just, without sharing that, then what is love? What is romance?
Dan Pashman: Like, if you were out on a first date with a guy, would you be like, hey, can I try a taste? Like if the thing he ordered looked really good, would you be like, hey, let me let me get a taste of that?”
Taz Ahmed: I would. If someone's super handsy with the food, like if you're eating a taco and then they touch your taco and you're just like, “what's going on here? No.” I'll hold the taco while you take a bite, but don't put your hands all over my my taco. I think that's the thing.
Dan Pashman: So you wouldn't mind the person putting your taco in their mouth. But you don’t want them to touch it with their hands?
Taz Ahmed: Yeah, because their hands are gross.
Dan Pashman: What if a guy asked for a taste of your food? How would you share it?
Taz Ahmed: I would share it from like that outside of my plate where I haven't touched it yet, not from the inside where I have touched it. Oh, my God. I must be OCD about my eating habits. Maybe this is why I'm single. I don't know how to share my food.
Dan Pashman: It sounds like maybe you have some boundaries.
Taz Ahmed: I do. I do have some food eating boundaries issues.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, right. You may have to let those walls come down...
Taz Ahmed: I do.
Dan Pashman: ...to find true love, Taz.
Taz Ahmed: I think I have to. Oh, also, if we're on a date and I'm like, oh, you can order whatever you want. I'm like, you can get alcohol or pork. I don't care. But if he orders pork, and then, like, he does it intentionally, so I can't share his food, that's also no-go.
Dan Pashman: I feel like on one hand, you're saying if a guy tries to act or eat too Muslim, to connect with you or to make you comfortable, then that's a turnoff.
Taz Ahmed: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: But then if he says, fine, I'm not going to, I'm just going to do my own thing, then you also sort of will... that can be held against him.
Taz Ahmed: I think it's more the sharing food part. When they go in for a bite of my food but they knowingly picked a food that I couldn’t share.
Dan Pashman: Oh. So we got to figure out what we're ordering here.
Taz Ahmed: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Do you like spicy?
Taz Ahmed: I'm not a big fan of spicy.
Dan Pashman: Okay. That's interesting. Do you feel sometimes that people assume that you like spicy food because you're a brown person?
Taz Ahmed: Totally. They're like, oh, but you're brown. You like spicy. I was like, no, I don't like spicy. I just like normal amounts of good-tasting food.
Dan Pashman: And so do sometimes people crank up the spice when they give you food without even asking and then it's an issue for you?
Taz Ahmed: Yeah, I think they do. My family's from Bangladesh. So we grew up with really fresh green chili pepper in all of our food. So my mom always had food on the table and then a green chili pepper, and she would take a bite of the chili pepper between bites of her food. That was how she incorporated.
Dan Pashman: What an interesting technique.
Taz Ahmed: Yeah. It was very Bangladeshi. This idea of eating, snapping off green chili peppers in your mouth.
Dan Pashman: And do you do that?
Taz Ahmed: No, I don't do that...
Dan Pashman: That's why you didn't acquire the taste. Interesting.
Taz Ahmed: What are we doing?
Dan Pashman: Well, I'm just waiting for them to… Maybe we have to go to the counter to order. Maybe that's why... Let's walk up there.
Taz Ahmed: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Alright.
Dan Pashman: We went up to the counter of Big Al's ready with an order and some questions, especially about the halalness of the bacon jalapeno burger pizza.
Taz Ahmed: Is the bacon halal?
Michael: Yes, halal. One hundred percent beef bacon.
Taz Ahmed: And the Lebanese garlic sauce. How authentic is that Lebanese garlic?
Michael: That's as authentic as the garlic sauce will come. We basically took the idea of a chicken shawarma sandwich with garlic sauce and we turned it into a pizza.
Taz Ahmed: Can we get extra garlic sauce on the pizza?
Taz Ahmed: Are you Al? Who's Al?
Michael I'm Michael. Big Al is my younger brother. Yeah.
Taz Ahmed: Oh cool.
Dan Pashman: Is he bigger than you?
Michael: He's actually younger. He's bigger in size. Yeah. The GM is my cousin. Another GM is my nephew. For the most part, it's a family owned business.
Taz Ahmed: That's awesome. I heard about you through some Muslim friends in L.A. who were talking about coming here during Ramadan and we just never made it out.
Dan Pashman: Describe the scene for us. What's the scene here like at Ramadan?
Michael: Mayhem. No joke.
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Michael: I mean, the thing is, you have to understand, Muslim families are big. It's like aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, cousins, cousins. And it's like, you know, you just have a swarm of people who all want to eat and break the fast at the same time. It is our favorite and our least favorite time to work, to be honest with you.
Dan Pashman: What's it like here on Valentine's Day.
Michael: Valentine's Day? Honestly, I'm going to tell you the weirdest thing about Valentine's Day. And it's not weird, is the calls in for a heart-shaped pizza. Christmas Day here is crazy. Super Bowl is insane.
Dan Pashman: Roughly speaking, what percent of your customers do you think come here because it's halal?
Michael: Probably, I want to say about 40 to 45 percent.
Taz Ahmed: And the rest are just coming for the pizza.
Michael: They're coming for the pizza, for the barbecue, for the ribs.
Taz Ahmed: That's amazing.
Michael: Just to show you that people don't really care. They don't have these stereotypes against Muslims. And I think it's amazing. Yeah, well, I'm glad you guys are here. Yeah let’s start this order. What would you like?
Dan Pashman: Yeah. OK. So hit it, Taz.
Taz Ahmed: OK. I think we're doing the Lebanese garlic chicken pizza.
Dan Pashman: One order of barbecue beef ribs. And then we should get a smoked beef brisket sub, I think.
Michael Can you guys handle some heat?
Dan Pashman: Funny you should ask...
Michael Sweet and spicy wings are amazing.
Taz Ahmed: I can handle like medium heat.
Michael: I think you'll be OK.
Taz Ahmed: Okay.
Michael: Yeah. They're amazing.
Dan Pashman: Will the sweet and spicy wings be too spicy for us? Well, friends, this is what we in the business call a cliffhanger. Stick around to find out. Plus, Taz talks about the Bangladeshi food that took on new meaning for her after her mom passed away. That's all coming up when our conversation continues.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful. I'm Dan Pashman. Please make sure you subscribe to or favorite this podcast right now while you're listening. That way you'll never miss an episode. An episode like last week's with British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. He's written 22 bestselling books, even though he's dyslexic. As he told me, when he was growing up, school was a real struggle. He got into cooking at a young age, working in his parents pub.
Jamie Oliver: The spark for me when I was about 11, I was given permission to make the family's Sunday lunch. And in England, like the Sunday lunch is kind of a thing. And I remember doing it and my dad thanked me sincerely. And I remember the feeling: hairs, back of neck. It was just like, I'm good at something.
Dan Pashman: Plus, hear Jamie's secret for a perfect toasted cheese sandwich. That conversation’s up now. Check it out. Now back to Taz Ahmed. I want to mention that her Muslim Valentine's cards are on sale now in her Etsy store. I especially like: “Want to role-play TSA?” And “I'm hal-ALL in.” Taz’s store on Etsy is called Tazzy Star Shop. You can also just Google Muslim Valentine's cards. She sort of owns the genre. Let's return now to Big Al's Halal Pizzeria, where...
Dan Pashman: Oh our pizza's arriving!
Taz Ahmed: It's here.
Michael: I put a lot of extra on there.
Taz Ahmed: Oh, I'm so excited.
Michael: Not overdo it.
Dan Pashman: The Lebanese chicken pizza uses Lebanese garlic sauce instead of tomato sauce. Then it's got mozzarella, chicken, diced tomatoes, pickles, and pickled turnips. It's such a great combination. Creamy and tangy and crunchy. The beef ribs were big enough for Fred Flintstone, as Taz said. Crusty on the outside and tender on the inside. And then the sweet and spicy wings.
Taz Ahmed: I'm OK. I'm going to have some pizza now.
Dan Pashman: They had diced jalapenos on top, and a sauce that was like buffalo sauce, but so much more. Smoky and rich and sweet, and pretty seriously spicy, especially for Taz.
Dan Pashman: It's kind of a crowning moment for me to be able to out-spicy a brown person.
Taz Ahmed: Oh yeah, you’re totally out-spicing me.
Dan Pashman: It is hot. But like, yeah.
Taz Ahmed: It's hot. But what I'm feeling is a burn in my tummy, which is like... That's going to, if I have more, my tummy is going to be in pain.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, I'm feeling that too, actually.
Taz Ahmed: I wasn’t allowed to eat with my hands in public because I'm left-handed. And in Islam, it's really considered a sin to eat with your left hand. So I grew up using a fork when I would go to Bengali house parties. They would judge me because I would not be eating with my hands. I’m like, I can eat with my hands. I just eat with my left hand.
Dan Pashman: So they would rather have seen you eat with a fork than eat with your left hand.
Taz Ahmed: Mhmm.
Dan Pashman: Because it's sort of like if you're eating with a fork and then they just sort of view you as a spaz, or someone who's just given into white culture,
Taz Ahmed: Yeah totally.
Dan Pashman: But if you’re eating with your left hand, then you're really gross.
Taz Ahmed: Yeah, it's really gross. But I had no winning.
Dan Pashman: Do you still like… when you pick food up with your left hand today, is that something you still think about in the back of your head?
Taz Ahmed: Yeah I totally think about it all the time. I definitely think about it. You're also supposed to serve with your right hand. So when you give a... hand a glass of water to someone… At home I don't really pay attention, but definitely I'm sure if I was on an arranged marriage meeting of parents, there would be a conversation where an auntie would be saying something about me. Luckily, I haven't been on one of those. So I don't have to worry about that.
Dan Pashman: After we finished eating, we talked more about the Bangladeshi foods that Taz grew up with.
Taz Ahmed: Bangladesh is the delta of the Ganges River. So a lot of the food is reflective of that kind of environment. There's a lot of greens and a lot of seafood. We're known for seafood. And a lot of sweets. So my favorite food is always the sweets. There’s this thing called mishti doi, which is just a sweet dessert yogurt, and it's baked. Around here, there's a lot of great goat biryani, which is good.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Taz Ahmed: Yum. My mom used to make this really great fish head soup, which was tomatoes and turmeric, and here she would use salmon, salmon head and just stew it for hours and hours. It was so delicious.
Dan Pashman: I know your mom passed away kind of suddenly back in 2011. You wrote a piece pretty soon after she passed away about trying to cook her food and not being able to… it was never as good you felt like.
Taz Ahmed: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: But that was a few years back now. How are you? How are you doing cooking her recipes?
Taz Ahmed: I'm not doing well at cooking her recipes. It's hard because I think growing up, when you're in college and you're trying to recreate the taste of home, you can call your mom and say, like, “What am I missing?” Without her there, it was really difficult to figure out how to make things. Those are the things that I never got taught by my mom that I wish I would have picked up on.
Dan Pashman: Tell me about guava jam.
Taz Ahmed: My grandmother used to make guava jam growing up. She used to have all these guava trees in Bangladesh. And when it was the season, she'd go out and pick all the guavas, and she would make guava jam. And whenever we would go visit Bangladesh, my mom would come back with this Ovaltine jar of guava. Because they would reuse the Ovaltine jars. It was gold in our house. Like none of the kids were allowed to eat it. It was my mom's special jam. And in the ‘90s, in L.A., she was able to find guava trees on the black market. Which I mean, I think you can find guavas in regular stores now. But at the time here she had to buy it from this Vietnamese man who was selling them out of his backyard in our neighborhood. Anyways, so we started growing guava trees in our house. My mom craved guavas because it reminded her of her mother. And my mom never made guava jam. But she loved eating the guavas. And after she passed away, I wanted to learn how to make guava jam. Actually, my dad was trying to chop down the trees in our backyard, because he was just so sad by seeing the guava trees and it was too much work for him. And I was like, “You can't cut down the guava trees.” And that year, the year that my mom passed away, I was like, “Okay, I'm going to learn how to make guava jam.” And I think it was really interesting, too, because my dad and I never got along, and in the process of figuring out what to do with all these guavas and jamming, I was doing it in my parents’ house. My dad was also learning, too, and it was just super-special to have that healing moment with my father over guava jam.
Dan Pashman: That is Taz Ahmed, writer, activist, and co-host of the podcast #GoodMuslimBadMuslim, which you should definitely check out. It's available wherever you get your podcasts. And get Taz’s Muslim Valentine's cards on Etsy. Her store there is called Tazzy’s Star Shop.
Dan Pashman: While you're pressing buttons on your thingymajiggy, subscribe to this podcast so you never miss an episode. Check out last week's conversation with British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
Dan Pashman: My thanks to everyone at Big Al's Pizzeria in Maywood, just outside L.A. Since we were there, they’ve revamped the menu a bit and they no longer do beef ribs. But that Lebanese garlic chicken pizza and sweet and spicy wings are still featured items. So pay them a visit. The food was great and they were super nice.