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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Halal snack packs: the fast food bringing cultures together

A new Australian fast food has swiftly become a craze. Halal Snack Packs, or HSP, a new take on the traditional doner kebab.
Halal Snack Packs served at the Anatolian Grill in Melbourne Australia  Engel Schmidl
Halal Snack Packs served at the Anatolian Grill in Melbourne Australia Engel Schmidl

It’s 4pm and the Friday-night production line is cranking up as Ertan Ozer and his mother, Gulten Aydogan, patrol the service area of their unassuming restaurant in suburban Melbourne. The doner meat is still thick on the rotisserie in preparation for a busy night to come.

An after-school rush of teenagers have been served and the families start to pour in. Not that long ago, it was all kebabs, gozleme (spinach pastries) and mixed meals. These days, however, all ­anyone seems to want is an “HSP” – halal snack pack.

The Anatolian Grill, in the Australian city’s multicultural hub of Coburg, added the HSP to its menu about six months ago. Ozer had heard about the idea through friends in Sydney, where it originated and then more and more people started requesting it. First, though, he had to explain it to his mother, who is also his business partner.

“I said to her: ‘Mum, do you want to be busy?’” he says.

“And she said: ‘What do you mean?’ I said: ‘Do you really want to get busy?’ She said: ‘Of course I want to be busy.’ I said: ‘Let’s order some of these polystyrene packs, I’ll do an ad on Facebook’ – and it just virtually hasn’t stopped.”

A not entirely unfair alternative name for the HSP might be the heart-stopper pack: it contains a base of deep-fried chips, a layer of melted cheese, then a heaped serving of doner meat on top (lamb, chicken or mixed), finished off with a selection of sauces – garlic, barbecue and chilli are the most popular. This is not a dish for those of a delicate disposition.

Food for political thought

In addition to its calorific opulence, another factor propelling the HSP to prominence is its spread across social-media networks Facebook and Twitter.

One of the biggest online fan groups for the HSP is the Halal Snack Pack Appreciation Society, which formed in December last year. The Facebook group now has more than 160,000 members and has become a ­forum for culinary banter and a bit of cultural solidarity.

The page has evolved its own lingo to describe aspects of the HSP experience, including the term “dingo” (the name of a native Australian dog species) to describe those who might opt for something mild, such as tomato sauce, as a topping.

However, the HSP story is as much about the politics of food as the food itself. Its rise has come against the backdrop of the emergence of far-right politics in Australia.

Last year, conservative senator Cory Bernardi established a senate committee to investigate halal certification in the country.

More recently, controversial senator-elect Pauline Hanson, who has been compared with Dutch firebrand Gert Wilders, campaigned on a platform that included a promise to appoint a Royal Commission – a formal government-run inquiry – “to determine if Islam is a religion or a political ideology”. During this month’s coverage of the federal elections, Labour party senator Sam Dastyari – who describes himself as a non-­practising ­Muslim – had his offer to take Hanson out for an HSP turned down.

Bringing people together

Back at the Anatolian Grill, a group of teenage boys have polished off their HSPs.

The food seems perfectly suited to fuel their growth. The youngsters, who attend a local Islamic secondary school, say they might eat a couple of HSPs a week and that they are a big hit with Muslim and non-­Muslim friends alike.

This begs the question – why all the love for the HSP, which is ­basically just a kebab without the bread?

“It brings a new factor into it,” says one of the teenagers. “It’s a different taste – the chips, the meat, sauce, the way the cheese melts on the lamb.” His friends nod in agreement.

But there’s another reason too.

“The name, of course, HSP, halal – you know that Muslims made it,” he adds. “It’s a good thing. They’re trying to bring everyone together.”

A key strand of the Australian multicultural story is the belief in the communal power of food.

But when Hanson dismissed Dastyari’s election-night offer to symbolically break bread over an HSP, it was, perhaps, a sad reminder that not all are ready to sit at the same table just yet.

artslife@thenational.ae