Palatable and Permissible
BY OSCAR CHUNG
Diners looking for a sophisticated halal dining experience can enjoy a set meal featuring beef and tuna dishes at The Ambassador Hotel Taipei’s Ahmicafe. (Photo courtesy of The Ambassador Hotel Taipei)
The growing number of certified halal restaurants is transforming Taiwan into a Muslim-friendly tourism mecca.
On a wintry evening earlier this year, Chang Beef Noodle restaurant in downtown Taipei City was a hive of activity. A group of 10 Muslims from New Southbound Policy (NSP) target country Malaysia wasted no time devouring a selection of delectable dishes from the establishment’s moreish menu.
Halima Chang (張亞珍), owner of the popular restaurant, said the Southeast Asian customers went to great lengths to visit for dinner. “They called ahead and said they had flown in just for our special halal menu.”
Patrons at Chang’s can enjoy various food items popular with the people. Hot-sellers include an NT$130 (US$4.30) bowl of beef noodles and a plate of 10 pan-fried beef dumplings for NT$90 (US$3).
For Muslim gourmands desirous of a more sophisticated dining experience, they can find satisfaction at any one of the metropolis’s high-end restaurants certified halal—an Arabic word meaning permissible—like the five-star Ahmicafe in The Ambassador Hotel Taipei.
Halima Chang, owner of Chang Beef Noodle in Taipei makes her halal version of beef noodles, a popular dish in Taiwan. (Photos by Chin Hung-hao)
Stephy Liang (梁維容), public relations marketing executive with the hotel, said the establishment offers sets for Muslims with prices ranging from NT$800 (US$26.60) to NT$1,000 (US$33.30). “But we can make a meal for any budget, big or small.”
According to Liang, the hotel serves halal food with black tableware used only by Muslims. Such items are never mixed with those for non-Muslims, which come in white or other colors. “All the cooking utensils should be used for non-pork foods and stored in a dedicated space,” she said.
Salahuding Ma (馬超彦), secretary general of Taipei-based Chinese Muslim Association (CMA), said there were 10 eateries around Taiwan preparing food in an appropriate manner for Muslims when the civic organization, along with the Tourism Bureau under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, started promoting their fare in 2008 for visitors of the Islamic faith. Since the first batch of restaurants was certified three years later, more than 250 establishments—including those in hotels and resorts—have been officially recognized as providers of halal food by CMA and several other Muslim organizations.
Identifying halal restaurants, Ma said, is expected to generate economic benefits derived from Muslim tourists rather than local residents. CMA estimates Taiwan is home to between 50,000 to 60,000 permanent Muslim residents, less than 0.25 percent of a total population of 23 million people. Migrant workers from Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia number around 250,000, but their spending power is comparatively weak, making them only a small factor in CMA’s strategy.
Ahmicafe is one of over 250 restaurants in Taiwan certified by Taipei-based Chinese Muslim Association. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)
In contrast, Global Muslim Travel Index (GMTI) 2019 published by U.S. credit card company MasterCard and Singapore-headquartered CrescentRating (CR)—the world’s leading authority on halal-friendly travel—found that Muslims made 140 million international trips in 2018. CR forecasts this figure will grow to 230 million by 2026.
“Muslim interest in Southeast Asia as a travel destination started surging after 9/11,” Ma said. “Taiwan made substantive tourism industry changes to try and capitalize on this trend.”
These adjustments continued apace in May 2016 after President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office and launched the NSP. A key plank in the government’s national development strategy, the policy seeks to enhance Taiwan’s agricultural, business, cultural, education, tourism and trade ties with the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states, six South Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand.
According to Ma, it is not easy to earn the seal of approval as a recognized halal establishment. “Muslims are very careful about what they eat, and no detail can be overlooked in order to win their hearts,” he said.
The Fried Chicken Master restaurant chain forbids its employees from bringing outside food into its stores to prevent cross-contamination. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)
One of the cardinal rules for any halal establishment is the absence of pork-related additives, ingredients and food materials from the kitchen, said Tsai Kuo-hsien (蔡國憲), project manager of Fried Chicken Master (FCM)—a stable of 16 halal-certified eateries operated Taiwanwide by Taoyuan City-headquartered Young Qin International Co. under the Super Qin Group.
“Taiwanese love pork, so we have to screen food materials meticulously and replace them with permissible ones,” Tsai said. Another measure is forbidding employees from bringing food from outside into premises. This may seem draconian, but Tsai firmly believes there is no room for error when it comes to the organization’s reputation. “We emphasize this time and again as pork is such a common ingredient in Taiwan.”
Alcohol is another no-no for Muslims. Tsai said the group is so careful it even opts for alcohol-free disinfectant sprays. The booze ban also presents cooking challenges, but experienced chefs like Lee A-kang (李文康) at Ahmicafe take it all in their stride.
“When preparing fish, alcohol is often used to reduce what can be an overpowering smell,” Lee said. But the culinary maestro takes a different tack, opting instead to dip the meat in a broth fashioned from bay leaf, celery, onion, parsley and peppercorn. “It’s a bit more troublesome, but there can’t be any shortcuts when ensuring the best possible dining experience for a Muslim guest.”
CMA’s halal certification is an involved process. Applicants must submit certificates granted by suppliers confirming they provide food materials containing no pork or alcohol. Documentation, issued by organizations like Taipei-based Taiwan Halal Integrity Development Association, encompasses a wide range of items such as soy sauces and cooking oils.
FCM’s products use fresh chicken slaughtered according to Islamic rules. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)
Additional paperwork must be furnished to verify meat comes from facilities where killing is carried out according to Islamic law as defined in the Quran: Animals must be alive and healthy at the time of slaughter, and all blood drained from the carcass. During the process, a Muslim will recite a dedication.
Super Qin operates one such CMA-authorized facility. The group started operating its poultry slaughterhouse in 1986, and a section was halal certified in 2015. Chicken from the abattoir quickly dominated FCM’s orders after it secured halal certification in 2017, and is available at select retailers in the Taiwan market.
According to CMA, it is mandatory for staffers at halal eateries to learn about Islamic dietary laws during specially organized classes. This is also a core component of the certification process, which includes on-site inspections to make sure a restaurant functions in an acceptable manner.
Muslim-operated establishments tend to find it less of a challenge to obtain CMA certification. Many naturally go above and beyond the call of duty. Chang Beef Noodle, for instance, extends courtesies like a designated prayer space.
Ma said this natural understanding in no way, shape or form equates to a rubber-stamp approval. “We’re careful about examining every applicant’s documents and workplace,” he said. “Sometimes, even Muslims are unaware of possible oversights like using cooking oil containing lard.”
Two Muslim customers from India pick up halal snacks at an FCM store in Taipei. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)
Efforts by Taiwan’s restauranteurs and hoteliers to meet the needs of Muslim diners have caught the eye of GMTI. In 2019, the index ranked Taiwan the third most Muslim-friendly destination among non-Organization of Islamic Cooperation countries and territories. This best-ever performance is an improvement from fifth in 2018 and seventh the year before in the annual survey comprising indicators like accommodation, dining environment and prayer space access.
The visibility of halal-certified eateries has increased as well, with the Tourism Bureau introducing them on its website in English and Mandarin. CMA is also training Muslim-friendly tour guides, who in turn educate visitors from abroad about locations where they can enjoy good food without betraying their faith. Last year, 116 guides qualified with flying colors after completing one of five intensive courses.
According to Ma, CMA is approving more and more restaurants each year. “We ensure the standard remains high by reviewing the Muslim-operated establishments at least every other year, and the non-Muslim ones at least once a year,” he said.
Having forged a peerless reputation for palatable and permissible high-quality food with Muslims from home and abroad for nearly a decade, Taiwan’s halal eateries—irrespective of clientele or pricing—are on the growth fast track and set to occupy a larger segment of the restaurant market.
Retrieve from Taiwan Peview