Many of us grew up with rules or customs around food. For Aymann Ismail, a practicing Muslim, that meant not eating pork. But as he got older, he became curious about why eating pork was a line that even less observant Muslims wouldn’t cross. So when a new loophole product hit the market, Aymann was faced with a choice — one that brought up questions of faith, tradition, and whether changing your food habits changes who you are.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Johanna Mayer, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O'Connell. Editing help this week from Fernanda Aguero.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "On The Floor" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- “Private Detective” by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- “Midnight Grind” by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- “Silhouette” by Erick Anderson
- “Pong” by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- “Steady” by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- “When You’re Away” by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- “Legend” by Erick Anderson
Photo courtesy of Aymann Ismail.
Dan Pashman: So, tell me about your relationship with pork growing up.
Aymann Ismail: Oooh, did you just ask a Muslim what their relationship to pork is?
Dan Pashman: I did.
Aymann Ismail: Wow. Wow. Dan, stay woke.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on the show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. I think it’s fair to say that most of us grow up with rules or customs around food, right? Things you aren’t supposed to eat. Things you’re supposed to eat a lot of. Things you only eat in certain situations. Those rules can become a big part of who you are. And when you become an adult and start your own life, you gotta decide whether you’ll keep following all those rules. You may start to wonder what it would mean if you challenged them. Would it change who you are? This is what the story we’re sharing today is about.
Dan Pashman: Aymann Ismail is a staff writer at the website Slate, where he often writes about his Muslim identity, and what it means to be a practicing Muslim in this country. Aymann grew up in Newark, New Jersey. Both his parents emigrated from Egypt, and he said that when they came to the U.S. to start a family, one thing was a very high priority.
Aymann Ismail: For them, it was really important that they raised us to be good Muslim kids, and they expected that Islam would be our guiding light in this crazy world. And, you know, in a lot of ways it was. I'm thankful for it, but at the same time, it was much easier for them to teach us what we weren't versus what we were. So a lot of my relationship to Islam early on at least, was very much, O.K., you're Muslim, so you don't drink alcohol and you're not going to have a girlfriend and you're not going to have sex before you're married and you're going to just do all these Muslim things. But really, how you express and practice your religion is all the things that you don’t do.
Dan Pashman: And Aymann says he learned early on that one of the biggest things you don’t do as a Muslim, is eat pork.
Aymann Ismail: It occupies this very real space in our minds all the time. You can't just avoid pork. You need to avoid all the pork products. And like, there's things like gelatin that brands will, like, sneakily just put, like, pork products into your pop tarts. And somehow you can't just go to the store and buy pop tarts. Like, you have to read the ingredients and see what's — where's the sneaky pork is.
Dan Pashman: And as a kid growing up Muslim, did you feel tempted by pork?
Aymann Ismail: No, why would I? I mean, a lot of people tend to make a big deal about Muslims not wanting to eat pork. But like, yo, we got lamb. We got — off, dude, we got kofta. Still, I don't know ...
Dan Pashman: Right. There's no shortage of delicious foods.
Aymann Ismail: Yeah, it's like... everybody's like, bacon’s the best! I'm like, have you had a rack of lamb?
Dan Pashman: [laughs]
Ayann: Are you going to compare that? Are you going to compare those two? No, you can't. You can’t.
Dan Pashman: Aymann spent his childhood in a pretty insular Muslim community. He went to a Muslim private school, where his mom was actually one of his teachers. So he wasn’t exactly gonna stumble on a plate of bacon at a friend’s house. Aymann liked school. He took it seriously. He started studying the Koran. And he came to a realization: There’s the rules on paper, and there’s the rules in practice.
Aymann Ismail: One of the things that I discovered when reading the Koran was that there was so much to say about like backbiting and like talking about somebody without them knowing that you're talking about them. God describes it as eating the flesh of your sibling. And that is so widespread in every single community. All we do is talk shit, And that's like something that everybody, that I do. You know? I talk shit. So it's really hard for me to hold something like, don't eat pork and don't backbite in the same way, because God talks in the Koran so much more about backbiting than not eating pig. But it's so easy to avoid pig, and it's so hard not to back bite. So you tend to see that people will latch onto certain rules more than others.
Dan Pashman: In other words, even though the Muslim prohibition on pork is not a huge focus in the Koran, it’s a huge deal in daily life, with tremendous cultural significance — especially, for Muslims in America.
Dan Pashman: When Aymann was 11, he started to understand why. He left his religious school and transferred to a public high school. He was the only Muslim student there, which made him an outsider. And right away, the one thing that the other kids in his school zeroed in on, was the fact that he didn’t eat pork.
Aymann Ismail: It was definitely a game for them, where, you know, there would be like pork on the lunch menu and they would try to like, throw it into my food or throw it into my mouth. You know, little kids being little kids, and it was sort of a game for them.
Dan Pashman: Aymann played along. He says it didn’t really upset him. But then, just days after he started in his new school, 9/11 happened. Those attacks affected his family personally.
Aymann Ismail: You know, as a kid who grew up in New Jersey, whose dad worked in New York and was in downtown New York when the towers came down, you know, we thought my dad had died because anybody from this area knows, like the phones weren't working, the tunnels were all closed. Nobody got home that night. Everybody came home like days later. And so we thought he had died. And it was one of the most horrible, horrifying experiences of as Americans. But we're Muslim, so other people have embodied that, you know, that horrible terrorist attack. And they sort of leveraged it against people, like me, who were here. Then Donald Trump says shit like — and people, and Muslims in New Jersey were celebrating. And people outside of New Jersey believed that.
Dan Pashman: Aymann says he didn’t feel any hostility in school after the 9/11 attacks, even when someone wrote in his yearbook, “Thanks for not blowing up the school, terrorist!” He took that as a joke. But for Muslims across the country, things were a lot more serious. In the years after 9/11, Muslims experienced a wave of hate crimes — some of which had a common thread.
CLIP (NEWS ANCHOR 1): Calling a desecration, a Muslim civil rights group is demanding a weekend indicent in Las Vegas be investigated as a hate crime by federal authorities. Surveillance videos shows an unidentified man meticulously putting bacon the doors of a mosque.
CLIP (NEWS ANCHOR 2): After their morning prayers, members of the Islamic center of Murphrey's broke came out their side door to find spray paint and bacon put on the door and on the ground and what's being called a hate crime.
CLIP (NEWS ANCHOR 3): The mask of a pig head and a sign that targeted Muslims was found at the Islamic center of greater Austin and Austin Peace Academy.
Aymann Ismail: That's a real that's a real part of America that thinks that will spontaneously combust if we go near it or touch it. Meanwhile, I'll think to myself, what a waste of a pig.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Aymann Ismail: You could have eaten that thing. You know, why are you leaving bacon on the door handles.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Aymann Ismail: That's food. What are you doing?
Dan Pashman: After high school, Aymann went to Rutgers University, where he tried to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He joined a band and played gigs in New York. He worked at the college TV station and as a videographer. After graduating, he got into video editing and then started getting interested in journalism. And there was one person whose work he admired so much, that this person became the reason Aymann decided to become a journalist.
[CLIP BOURDAIN INTRO MUSIC]
CLIP (ANTHONY BOURDAIN): I'm Anthony Bourdain. I write, I travel, I eat, and I'm hungry for more.
Aymann Ismail: So good. You know? But one of the things that Anthony Bourdain loves is is pork. You know? And he'll do a lot of trips to places where they'll just get the big pig on a spit and they'll roast it. And he's just describing this thing like, it's heaven. And I believe him. And it's — it just looks delicious the way that they roast the pig. You know? And that was sort of my gateway drug through. And I use that term very real here because it does feel like a gateway drug where it opened me up to all these different kind of travel shows. I really loved David Chang's show on Netflix. I'm going to blank on the name — oh, Ugly Delicious. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Yup.
Aymann Ismail: So good. He did an episode about pork, where he would go all across the country looking for like the most authentic pork. You can't just cook a rack of ribs and then call it barbecue. You need — like the Pit masters ...
Dan Pashman: After watching a bunch of these shows, without ever actually eating pork, Aymann became a BBQ snob.
Aymann Ismail: But you don't really know how serious and emotional this is until you hear a Pit Master talking about why they're picking the juices up from the bottom of the tray with a syringe and injecting it back into the pig while it's cooking. Like something like that where they're talking about their soul and they're talking about what is authentic American and what isn't. All of that still rings true to me, even though I've never tasted it.
Dan Pashman: As a kid, Aymann had no interest in trying pork. But once he started binging all these food TV shows, he couldn’t help but feel curious to really taste it. He began to wonder, are other Muslims curious, too? He decided to write a story about it for Slate, and began interviewing people, recording the calls for his article.
CLIP (WAJAHAT AlI): Sorry, I'm talking to my wife. How are you doing?
CLIP (AYMANN): Aymann. Amazing.
Dan Pashman: This is Aymann talking with Wajahat Ali. He’s a columnist for The Daily Beast, and the author of a new book called, Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American. Wajahat has also thought a lot about pork.
CLIP (WAJHAT ALI): There was a cheese pizza at school, and I took off the pepperoni and ate it, which I don’t do anymore, cause I thought it would be fair. But there was a small sliver of pork that I convinced myself was red sauce, attached to the side.
CLIP (AYMANN ISMAIL): [LAUGHS]
CLIP (WAJHAT ALI): And then I ate it, and it was delicious, but it wasn’t worth it because for the next two weeks I was wracked by guilt. I was convinced I was going to hell.
Dan Pashman: At the time Wajahat was just 7.
CLIP (WAJHAT ALI): No matter where you go, I’ve traveled and, you know, talked to many Muslims, it’s just one of those interesting cultural demaractions where you could be snorting cocaine off a strippers belly, while taking shots of vodka, and, like engaging in a threesome ...
CLIP (AYMANN ISMAIL): [LAUGHS]
CLIP (WAJHAT ALI): But you’d be like, no bro I don’t do pork. Astaghfirullah. Like this is one of those taboos that you realize is something we just do not do.
Dan Pashman: Aymann talked to another Muslim who asked him not to use her real name in his article, because she admitted that she tried bacon once. He wasn’t writing this story because he planned to try pork. It was really a way for him to analyze and unpack this taboo, without breaking it. And then…
CLIP (PAT BROWN): I’m here to announce the latest addition to the Impossible family, Impossible Pork! ...
Dan Pashman: That’s Pat Brown, founder and C.E.O. of Impossible Foods, in a promotional video. Impossible Foods is one of the biggest companies making plant-based products that are supposed to look, smell, and taste just like meat. They do the Impossible burger which is now in a lot of places. They add the molecule heme to those burgers, which makes it look like the burger is bleeding, and gives it a meaty taste. And now, they say they’re launching vegan ground "pork". Pork in air quotes.
Dan Pashman: This means that Aymann would have the chance to experience something very close to ground pork, without ever actually eating pig.
Dan Pashman: Now, Impossible Pork wasn’t in stores yet — it’s still not in stores now. But still Aymann wanted to answer the question for himself: When he can get his hands on it, should he try it?
Dan Pashman: There’s one person he knew he had to talk to, someone who he could turn to for real advice. His former teacher at the Muslim school he attended as a kid, Nadia Ismail. Who, you’ll recall, is also his mom. In a phone call, she explained that it’s not just about the pork. It’s about the importance of observing rules:
Nadia Ismail: We need rules in our lives, to follow, to guide us, to make us better human beings, to help the people around us.
Dan Pashman: Aymann’s mom understood that technically Impossible Pork has no pork. But for her, it’s not just about the letter of the law, it’s about the spirit of it.
Nadia Ismail: I was wondering why? It is halal to eat it because it doesn't have any pork in it. But why? [LAUGHS]
Aymann Ismail: Her thing is don't eat it, because if you're eating it, you are entertaining something that could potentially lead you down a path where you try something not good. So she's like, why even roll the dice even if the chances are slim? Don't I make good enough food for you? Like, that's sort of her take.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Aymann Ismail: And her take was also, you kids are spoiled. When she first got to this country in the '70s, there wasn't really a halal market anywhere. But now they're like right next to the other meats. In any supermarket, there's always like a halal section. So she's like, you guys got this and you're still wanting to try pork. Like, what's wrong with you? So there's definitely a struggle there, because wanting to eat it feels incredibly hypocritical because not eating is so ingrained in how you perform Islam, especially in a non-Muslim country. And so avoiding it is a little bit of what makes you a Muslim here.
Dan Pashman: Aymann was conflicted about whether or not he would try Impossible Pork when it came out. He put these mixed emotions, and the quotes from Wajahat Ali and his mom, into his piece. Last September, it was published on Slate with the headline, “Impossible Pork Is Testing My Faith.” The article struck a nerve:
Aymann Ismail: You know, I was given a lot of grief by some Muslims that I know ever since that article came out. I still get emails from angry Muslims being like, you're sending people down the wrong path and that you're making it harder for some people to want to be Muslim now.
Dan Pashman: But a day after the article came out, Aymann also got a different kind of email — from Impossible Foods. They wanted his address.
Aymann Ismail: And they sent me like five pounds of it, or something crazy.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Aymann Ismail: It was like this huge block of just fake meat. And I stuck it in my freezer and I didn't tell my wife about it. And she came home and she was like, "What the hell?"
Dan Pashman: It was one thing to resist temptation when the Impossible Pork was theoretical. Now the stuff is in Aymann’s freezer. What should he do? Later in the show, we’ll check back in with him.
Dan Pashman: But first, another story about the real conflict around fake meat. Because Muslims aren’t the only ones who are struggling with Impossible Pork. That’s coming up, stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman, and I want to take a quick break from food here, because I’ve got something important I want to talk with you about. Recently, a bunch of us in the podcast community have joined together and partnered with RepresentUs - a non-partisan organization that works to protect our elections and pass laws that make our government work better for all Americans.
Dan Pashman: Right now, our right to vote is under threat. 19 states passed laws last year that make it harder for American citizens to vote. Election workers are quitting in droves because of threats and harassment.
Dan Pashman: So I hope you’ll go to Represent.Us/podcast to find out what you can do about it. Now, to be clear: this is not about supporting any candidate or political party. It’s about making sure that all Americans, all of us, regardless of our politics, have an equal opportunity to vote and to have our voices heard.
Dan Pashman: Now, I can hear some of you already saying it, why is he talking about this in a food podcast? Well, first of all, food is political, and we often address political themes on our show, as we are in this very episode. And second, I’m talking about it because this is a food podcast. Because while I’m sure some of you are super politically engaged, I know some of you are more focused on what’s for dinner. And that’s O.K. But you’re the ones I especially want to reach.
Dan Pashman: There are things we can do, together, to ensure all Americans have an equal say in our country’s future. To learn more about what you can do, please head to Represent.Us/podcast, to learn more. That’s represent.us/podcast.
Dan Pashman: O.K., back to the show.
Leah Koenig: My mom's side is Jewish. My dad's side was not, but my dad was sort of — he called himself a born again agnostic. Like he just — he did not care about religion, and my mom wanted us to be a Jewish family. So that's what we were. We weren’t like a Christmas tree and menorah family. We were just a menorah family.
Dan Pashman: This is Leah Koenig. She’s a food writer and cookbook author who lives in Brooklyn. She grew up outside of Chicago, in a family that was Jewish, but as she says, not super observant. On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year when Jews are supposed to fast all day, Leah’s family would go to temple in the morning then go out for corned beef sandwiches for lunch. Her family ate plenty of non-kosher foods at home, like shellfish.
Leah Koenig: But my mom drew the line at pork. Pork has a much, much higher level of power and guilt associated with it, for sure.
Dan Pashman: Why do you think that is? Of all the rules in Judaism that your mom could have chosen to hold on to? Why do you think that was one of the few?
Leah Koenig: Pork has a kind of sad history for Jews, in that it's been — pork has been weaponized against Jews many, many times throughout the centuries. One of the kind of grossest examples is during the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews were basically told in Spain and Portugal that they had to either convert to Catholicism, be killed or leave. One way that people had to sort of prove that they were no longer Jewish was to eat pork.
Dan Pashman: And Leah says even before that, back during the Middle ages in places like Germany and Austria, Jews were depicted as a race that came from pigs.
Leah Koenig: There are these frescoes or paintings that called Judensau, that literally depict Jews like suckling at the teat of a mother pig. And it's literally as disgusting and as violent sounding as you are imagining. And some of those paintings still are hanging in like churches in Germany.
Dan Pashman: In 2018 a member of Berlin’s Jewish community went to court to try to get one of these images removed from a church. But the court ruled against him, keeping the painting in place.
Leah Koenig: Was my mom aware of all of these specific things in her when she was making her decision? Probably not. But there is this kind of inherited trauma around the violence of pork and Jews that I think gives it a much greater hard and fast know than some of the other laws. I always joke that Jews are not breakfast meat people.
Leah Koenig: Because if you're, you know, anywhere in America, if you go to a diner, if you go to a Denny’s, whatever, like, there's sausage, there's bacon, there is breakfast ham. I don't think I've ever had meat for breakfast in my entire life, unless you count smoked lox, because there's just not really a Jewish breakfast meat in the same way. I never feel more Jewish than when I go to a diner with friends and like, they're all having sausage and I'm having just the pancakes.
Dan Pashman: Leah did try pork a couple times as a kid, but she doesn’t really remember it. When she was 17, after a lesson on meat production in her high school science class, she gave up meat entirely. Food started becoming a bigger part of her life.
Leah Koenig: My vegetarian identity was very much a part of who I was. And actually, it also, as I sort of got more interested in the Jewish side of my identity, which happened kind of in college and after college, being a vegetarian was my way of keeping kosher. So for me, vegetarianism kind of took on this spiritual power or resonance.
Dan Pashman: When Leah got married at 26, she’d been a vegetarian for nearly a decade. Her husband was Modern Orthodox Jewish, so he ate meat, but only kosher meat. Over several years, they both changed some of their food rules. He’d go to non-kosher restaurants, and she began eating meat again.
Leah Koenig: I wanted to eat meat in this way that felt kosher and also sustainable, and took into consideration like animal ethics and things like that. So pork wasn't really an option because there wasn't — obviously, there wasn't kosher pork and they're — you know, I'm sure there was ethically raised pork, but I needed both.
Dan Pashman: Today, Leah has turned her love of food into her career. She writes modern Jewish cookbooks, and reports on food for places like The New York Times, Saveur, and Tablet, an online magazine of Jewish news and culture.
Dan Pashman: One day last year, her editor at Tablet got in touch and said, "Hey, there’s a new product coming out called Impossible Pork. Why don’t you look into it, maybe write an article about it?". Leah found that it’s become a very polarizing topic with the Jewish community.
Dan Pashman: Now, for more observant Jews, for a food to be kosher, it’s not enough for it not to have pork or shellfish in it. Even if it has no meat at all in it, the food has to be certified kosher. One of the main groups that grants this certification is the Orthodox Union. You may have seen their "OU" seal on a bunch of foods. It’s a U inside a circle. Impossible Pork asked The Orthodox Union for the seal, and the Union turned them down. But the reason had nothing to do with the ingredients.
Leah Koenig: When they had given a beef bacon product, a couple of years ago, certification, they got just inundated with calls of people being like, "What is this? Why did you give a bacon product a certification? Can I eat this? What, is it pork?" Like, people were very confused. The reason that they didn't give certification to Impossible Pork is because they didn't want to go through that rigmarole again. And they basically were like, we see that there is nothing, not kosher in the in the letter of the law about this product. But from an optics point of view and from the consumer's point of view, we don't want to give people a heart attack seeing like an "OU" on a product that says pork. And from what I understand they had — they went to Impossible and basically said, "If you change your name to make it more clearly not real pork, we will give it certification," but Impossible Pork, for I'm sure good reasons, decided they didn't want to do that.
Dan Pashman: So like so, the rabbis said, if you'll change the name to, let's say, impossible fake pork...
Leah Koenig: Yeah. Or impossible P-Y-R-K, or like, you know, something like that.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right. Or impossible soy pork or something.
Leah Koenig: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Right. That communicates it, then they'd be O.K. But simply by calling it Impossible Pork, they felt like that was going to be too confusing for people.
Leah Koenig: Yes.
Dan Pashman: What do you think of that?
Leah Koenig: Oh, I mean, I think that kosher certification in general sometimes doesn't give people a lot of credit to be smart, informed consumers. If you're going to put something in your body, you're going to bring something into your kitchen, you need to at least have enough awareness about what it is that you can make that decision yourself. Right? Like, there is nothing — you can turn around the package and see the ingredients right there, and there's nothing any anything close to a meat product, let alone pork product.
Dan Pashman: But that wasn’t enough to persuade the Orthodox Union. For her article, Leah also talked to an Orthodox Rabbi named Shmuly Yanklowitz, who’s vegan, and runs a Jewish animal advocacy organization.
Leah Koenig: He is kind of all for products like, Impossible pork that give people a chance to kind of live happy kosher lives in whatever way. But for him personally, the thought of eating that product just completely disgusted him. As a vegan, he has no interest in eating sort of like any fake meat product, let alone fake pork. But what I actually noticed when I was talking to people for the article, the general consensus was I'm down with the veggie burger, but I'm not interested in fake pork.
Dan Pashman: Why do you think they weren't interested?
Leah Koenig: I think it goes back to that kind of spiritual hold that pork has over us. People who've decided not to eat pork have made that decision, and so they're kind of like, they don't want the wiggle room.
Dan Pashman: Once again, it’s a question of the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. People are saying, yeah, technically, it doesn’t have pork in it, but you’re calling it pork. And the whole idea of it is to make something that looks and smells and tastes as much like pork as possible.This reaction gives Leah mixed feelings.
Leah Koenig: It can almost lead to this sort of like Olympics of who's like the most pious. There's this sense of like, of course, I wouldn't eat it. And you know, not only would I not eat it, but I wouldn't even go into a restaurant that would serve it. Or, you know, oh, I wouldn't even do — you know, take it one step further.
Dan Pashman: I wouldn't even say the word pork!
Leah Koenig: Exactly, exactly. I would like leave one letter out to make sure I'm not saying it correctly.
Leah Koenig: It's kind of like a double edged sword. Like, I like it because I think it's cool that there are some people who really take it so seriously. But I also think it can lead to a little bit of an unhealthy relationship to the laws.
Dan Pashman: Leah put these mixed emotions and the quotes from the Orthodox Union and Rabbi Yanklowitz into her piece. Last October, it was published in Tablet with the headline, “Is It Kosher to Eat Fake Pork?”. She thought that would be the end of it. Just one more story about this new food. But then …
Leah Koenig: I had linked Aymann’s Slate piece in my Tablet piece, and I think I wrote him and said just like, thank you for your great piece and wanted to connect. And then, he reached back out to me and said …
Aymann Ismail: I was like, "Leah, look at this stuff. I have it. What are we going to do?"
Leah Koenig: And to be clear, when I was writing the piece, I had zero interest in trying it.
Dan Pashman: But there must have been a little bit of you that was also just excited to try it?
Leah Koenig: Honestly, not. I was ...
Dan Pashman: Curious. Maybe excited is the wrong? Curious?
Leah Koenig: Curious, yeah.
Dan Pashman: So a Muslim and a Jew walk into a kitchen full of fake pork ... Leah, Aymann, and I are all on Zoom together, and they explain what happened next. Aymann has this freezer full of Impossible Pork. He really wants to try it but he doesn’t know what to do with it — he’s not much of a cook. Leah was a little bit curious, and she does cook. She’s the food writer and cookbook author. Together, they decide to go for it.
Dan Pashman: Aymann invited Leah over. He originally wanted to make Kofta, his favorite food that his mom makes. It’s ground meat and spices. But Leah struck that down because that’s traditionally made with beef or lamb. A pork substitute wouldn’t make sense in kofta. She thought they should make something that would typically have pork in it.
Leah Koenig: And so we ended up doing potstickers, which neither of us had ever made. I've certainly eaten them plenty of times with chicken and other things, so I said, "OK, I know what it tastes like as a dish. What is it going to taste like with this sort of, you know, fake pork flavor going on?".
Aymann Ismail: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Leah Koenig: And I guess I was so pushy, which I didn't mean to be, but I guess I was because that's what ...
Aymann Ismail: No, no, no, no. You were very convincing. You were convincing, and I think you made your point and I agree in the end.
Leah Koenig: So that's what we ended up making.
Aymann Ismail: So I have no experience in the kitchen. So she sent me a recipe and was like, "We need these ingredients." And then that's sort of where my job ended.
Aymann Ismail: She was like mincing, she was cutting all the ingredients. I more or less watched. But watching her work in the kitchen was magical by the way.
Leah Koenig: Aww. I remember it differently. I think we were co- ... really good co-sous chefs.
Dan Pashman: Leah worked from a straightforward recipe: ginger, soy sauce, scallions, and dumpling wrappers. And next to all that was a big block of Impossible Pork.
Leah Koenig: And that was the moment, that was sort of like the million dollar moment, when we un — cut into the package and kind of touched the fake pork. And, you know, Impossible's kind of known for making things that feel real. And it really did kind of have that kind of squishy texture of ground meat.
Aymann Ismail: Yeah, yeah.
Dan Pashman: So you're wrapping them in the dough wrappers, you're getting ready to cook them. Ayman, how are you feeling?
Aymann Ismail: I’m excited. It was all coming to a head for me. I'd never imagined that I would ever get this close to eating something that was pork or smelled like pork or tasted like pork. I’ve smelled it a thousand times. I grew up in the Ironbound, where there's a huge Portuguese and Brazilian community in ...
Dan Pashman: In Newark.
Aymann Ismail: Yeah, in Newark. And so there's a lot of pork in the air.
Aymann Ismail: It's just all — it's just clouds of pork everywhere. And so I'm really familiar with the smell. And for me, when we started cooking it, I was getting a little bit of that same smell. And so I was just getting all giddy on the inside, feeling like this could be the first time in my life that I finally know what I'm missing out on.
Leah Koenig: Hmm.
Aymann Ismail: And a part of me wanted it to taste bad so that I can turn around and be like, that was nasty. There's no reason to ever try that again. Because I told myself over and over again that this was the reason that I was different from all of my neighbors, who were Muslim.
Dan Pashman: Leah, tell me, how are you feeling while the potstickers were cooking before you had eaten any?
Leah Koenig: Yeah, I mean, I think while we were making them my hesitation sort of faded. And it almost it is sort of like, what's the big deal? Like, it just is like any other meat. And so to actually be handling it and, you know, squishing it in the bowl with all the other ingredients, and wrapping it inside these little — the little wrappers, it kind of — it demystified it in a way. And so I was actually getting more excited to try it as we were making it.
Aymann Ismail: You know, what's really funny is that my wife was there with us, and once we opened the packaging and I ran to the other room and I was like, "Mira, Mira! You should try this. You should try this. This is the pork. This is what we were talking about." And she was like, "Hmm. No thanks."
Leah Koenig: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: So what what? What, Leah? What was your husband's take on all this when you told him you're going to Newark to hang out with Aymann to eat Impossible Pork?
Leah Koenig: He was jealous. He was like, "Bring me, bring me some home."
Dan Pashman: Leah and Aymann finished cooking the potstickers and brought them out to Aymann’s backyard.
Leah Koenig: We were just sitting in the sunshine. We had chopsticks and dipping sauce, and it was just very lovely. Like their beautiful son was sitting in a bouncer and being adorable. So it was just something that I haven't done in a while because of COVID, like going to somebody's house to share a meal. When I bit into the first one ... I think it was sort of two things happening at once. The first was, this tastes really good. I would like another one. They're delicious. Let's keep eating them. And then on the other side, it was just sort of like, what's the big deal? These are are pork-ish pot stickers. What was I so afraid of or — and/or what was I so resistant to, I guess.
Aymann Ismail: Yeah, the first bite it was freaking good and I told Leah I couldn't stop eating them. They were so fun size, too. These tiny little fun dumplings. They were so cute. So we just poppin them like crazy. But the first one, I remember expecting it to taste like nothing I've ever tasted before.
Leah Koenig: Hmm. Mm-hmm.
Aymann Ismail: And it just tasted like a lot of things I've had before, you know? I needed it to taste like the best thing I've ever had for me to feel like I would ever go out of my way to test my relationship with Islam in this way ever again. But once you got past the first bite and you end up with like the second and third and fourth, all of that melts away a little bit, where it’s not so loaded, and then you're just enjoying the meal.
Leah Koenig: Yeah.
Aymann Ismail: And like Leah said, you're enjoying the weather and we're like talking about something else and we're — I'm really excited about my garden and I'm just like clipping everything in force feeding it to Leah.
Leah Koenig: Yeah. You sent me home with some beautiful chard, which we really enjoyed.
Aymann Ismail: That's what I mean. It was like once we got past that, it was just sharing a meal with someone lovely.
Leah Koenig: I have done, you know, a lot of work internally over the last 10 years trying to figure out where I want to fit in the spectrum of being an environmentally conscious eater, of being, you know, a Jewish eater. And so I have come to this place by being a vegetarian for 10 years, being a vegan for two of those years, trying my first meat after those years in a very conscious setting. It was actually a goat. It was slaughtered according to kosher traditions. And the goat had been raised sustainably. And that was the first meat I had eaten in 10 years and like that was a transcendent experience. So I kind of know where I fit at this point and where I want my family and our eating to fit. So this was a really cool experiment. But, you know, I know I'm not going to be a pork eater. And I know I don't really want to even make Impossible Pork again. Like it didn't ... it didn't change anything for me in a way that felt like I want to make space for this. And not because I want to block it out, but because it doesn't add anything.
Dan Pashman: Aymann, on the other hand, says he would eat Impossible Pork again. But there’s a bigger reason why he’s glad he did it.
Aymann Ismail: It's always been my role in my relationship with the religion to look along the margins and look for the fault lines and get us to talk about them. And particularly, when we're thinking about the Muslim-American experience, it's so hard for us to have these kinds of conversations and inquiries, really, outside of the context of Islamophobia in wanting to present ourselves as immovable, and here to stay, basically, and solid. People are so convinced that we need to be steadfast against pork as a weapon that was used against our community.
Dan Pashman: It's almost like there's a concern that opening up any space for kind of nuance and flexibility might create vulnerability.
Aymann Ismail: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And it's not for nothing. Like people have taken things that I've done, work that I've done, to use it against Muslims. But I do still think that that concern cannot outweigh our desire for exploration, our desire for wanting to having hard conversations. Yeah, I've still enjoyed writing and exploring halal pork, and so I'm going to continue to find things like it, so that I can push for more, more awareness, at least amongst Muslims that it's O.K. to have a little bit of this doubt. Let's try it and see how we feel.
Dan Pashman: That was Aymann Ismail and Leah Koenig. You can find Aymann’s writing and podcasts on his website at aymann.com, and you can find Leah’s writing and cookbooks at leahkoenig.com. We’ll put both of those links in our show description and website. My thanks to both of them, and special thanks to Aymann’s wonderful mother, Mrs. Nadia Ismail.
Dan Pashman: One quick note on Impossible Pork — it’s not in stores yet but it is in one restaurant in America - David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York. It’s also in over a hundred restaurants in Hong Kong. Hope you like this episode. Make sure you check out last week's show in which we answer the questions: Shallots. I mean, what's the deal. Do they do anything? Are they really just small fancy onions? Come on. Also, do you need to salt you pasta water? We debate. That episode's up now, where you got this one.