Friday, November 04, 2005

Plainfield, a new land of milk and honey

The United Halal Meat & Grocery made a big move to Plainfield three weeks ago, just 15 paces south of the border from its previous Somerset Street location in North Plainfield. I've been waiting for the shop to arrive.

For the past three years area residents looking for Arabic and Middle Eastern food have grown to know United as a friendly place to find the wonderful foods they love.

"I'm trying to reach out to everyone," Debbie Ahmed said. "The Americans who come in like it, especially the way the fruit and nuts are set out."

Debbie is usually behind the register ready to give a warm greeting. In just a few minutes I felt like we were old friends with her calling me "my sister."

Debbie and her Egyptian-born husband Nasser Ahmed own United. They have been married for 18 years and Debbie says she converted to Islam 12 years ago. The couple work long hours, yet they share an obvious joy for the wholesome food they sell. Whether it is imported or domestic, everything they offer is natural, with no chemicals or preservatives.

I had come in looking for unprocessed honey and I certainly found the right place. Nasser told me that the Koran says honey has many medicinal and healing properties. Not only did I buy a big jar of dark Turkish honey complete with honeycomb, but I found a true exotic sweet: date syrup. (Can you imagine liquid dates on your morning pancakes?)

The store has diverse grocery goods, nevertheless at its heart United is a meat market. Go to the back and you will find the butcher -- that's right, a butcher -- standing ready to cut and prepare meat to your specification. Nothing is pre-packaged.

I know Plainfielders who will trek many miles and pay a small fortune to chain stores for what they can find right here, beautiful meats that are all free-range. The only meat United sells are "halal," hand-slaughtered according to Islamic law by an imam, which is similar in tradition to Kosher meat killed by a rabbi. The meat is all USDA inspected and delivered fresh, never frozen, from Pennsylvania -- best of all, no hormones.

With the new, larger store United has begun to offer take-out. The grill menu includes kafta and shish kabob, chops, and don't miss the big falafel sandwich. At $2.50 it could be the best meal deal in the city.

The bounty continues with cheeses and canned goods, dry lentils and fresh Middle Eastern breads, dried fruits and nuts -- you should see the giant hazelnuts. For a special treat, skip the pita and buy the fatir (fah-teer). Talk about rich! Fatir dough is layered with so much butter it would make a good croissant seem dried out.

You can find United in the annex attached to the old Tepper's building. Street parking can be difficult, but right across the street is the entrance to the large parking lot that runs from Somerset to Watchung behind Front Street.

As I walked away I reviewed what Debbie told me about her background - Italian, Sicilian - and she had a very familiar accent. I turned around, went back and poked my head in the door.

I called out, "Hey Debbie, are you a Jersey girl?"

"Newark, born and bred," she beamed.

United Halal Meat & Grocery
33 Somerset Street, Plainfield
Open daily, 9a.m. - 9p.m.


--Barbara Todd Kerr

KEYWORDS: food, business