Islamic Flavors Blending Well in Taipei

TAIWAN, Taipei: (Main dish: Humus) Yunnanese inspired Halal food at the Kunming Islamic Halal restaurant. 9th November, 2016. Credit: Chris Stowers/PANOS

More Muslim tourists means more demand for halal-certified restaurants.

Applications are surging in Taiwan for halal (清真) certification – assurance that a restaurant’s food preparation strictly follows Muslim law. This growth likely helped Taiwan achieve its ranking as the world’s seventh-most Muslim-friendly travel destination among non-Muslim countries, according to the “Global Muslim Travel Index 2016” survey published by Mastercard-CrescentRating. Taiwan’s rating was up from 10th place in the 2015 survey.

Given the continuing efforts of the Taiwan government to promote tourism from countries with large Muslim populations, this ranking may well move even higher. The number of restaurants, hotels, and other venues in Taiwan certified either as halal or the equivalent “Muslim-friendly” designation increased to 92 at the end of October 2016, according to Jeff Tsai, Halal Specialist for the Chinese Muslim Association (CMA), which is responsible for the certification process. The figure was up 21% from the 76 at the end of 2015, and a steep increase from the mere 11 at the end of 2011. Tsai expressed hope that the number of certified establishments will soon reach 100.

This program has transformed Taiwan from a place with very limited halal food availability to a locale offering many choices from among many different types of cuisine. The CMA office, located within the Taipei Grand Mosque at 62 XinSheng S. Rd., Sec. 2, can provide visitors with a list of Taiwan’s halal-certified restaurants.

TAIWAN, Taipei: Taipei Grand Mosque, one of two places of worship for muslims in the capital. 4th November, 2016. Credit: Chris Stowers/PANOS

Among the provisions of Islamic law are a prohibition on pork products and a requirement that other meat come from animals slaughtered in accordance with Islamic ritual practice.

A key factor behind the surge in halal certification requests are shifts taking place in the composition of Taiwan’s tourism. For both political and economic reasons, the number of tourists coming from China, especially in group tours, has been declining, while arrivals from areas with large Muslim populations are growing. Taiwan’s extension of its e-visa and visa-waiver programs to more countries with large Muslim populations has helped spur the trend.

Taiwan Tourism Bureau data for the first 10 months of 2016 show that tourism arrivals from China were down by 44% to 220,000, while arrivals from Southeast Asia rose by 25% to 150,000. Among the Southeast Asian countries, arrivals from Malaysia rose by 11%, Singapore by 8%, and Indonesia by 5%.

In response to that shift, the Tourism Bureau has engaged in active outreach to encourage restaurants to gain halal certification. It has conducted forums to educate restaurant owners about the potential benefits of halal certification and the procedures for obtaining it. The Bureau offers subsidies of up to NT$200,000 to help offset direct costs incurred in connection with the halal certification.

Besides making Taiwan more attractive to Muslim visitors, the government views the encouragement of halal certification as a worthy activity in its own right. “Taiwan is a Gourmet Kingdom, right?” says Eric Lin, director of the Tourism Bureau’s International Affairs Division.  “Halal is a healthy standard. Everyone can eat and enjoy foods that meet this standard, whether they are locals or visitors.”

TAIWAN, Taipei; Thai/SE Asian-style Halal muslim food at the Yunus Halal Restaurant. 3rd November, 2016. Credit: Chris Stowers/PANOS

“When we first started encouraging restaurants to obtain halal certification, many owners dismissed the idea, saying ‘Oh, that’s very difficult,’” Lin recalls. “But we’ve worked to show them that it’s really not that difficult or expensive.” Over time, as restaurant owners have looked more closely at the program, more and more of them have decided that in the current environment it may make sense for them to obtain either halal certification (accorded only to those of Muslim faith) or the “Muslim-Friendly” designation in cases where the owner is not Muslim.

According to the CMA’s Tsai, changes are also occurring in the demographics of Taiwan’s resident Muslim population. Although he estimates that the total number of Muslims has remained rather stable at about 223,000 believers, the composition has been evolving. Many of the older Muslims who came over from China in the wake of the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s have passed away, but taking their place have been younger people from countries such as Indonesia, who are either working or studying in Taiwan. These more recent arrivals have also increased the demand for halal eateries.

The diverse demographics of Taiwan’s Muslim population can be observed at the Taipei Grand Mosque during Friday prayers. The Mosque is open to guests, although non-Muslims should avoid entering the prayer hall. Visitors are also asked to dress appropriately (no short pants, please).

Below is a selection of halal-certified restaurants representing a range of cuisines, atmospheres, and price levels.

Chungkuo Beef (Noodles) Restaurant (清真中國牛肉麵餐館)

No. 1, Alley 7, Lane 137, YanJi St. Located near the intersection of YanJi St. and ZhongXiao E. Rd., Chungkuo Beef Noodles tends to be crowded, a testament to its popularity. It is one of the old-style Chinese Muslim restaurants founded more than half a century ago by natives of northeastern Chinese provinces, especially Shandong, and now often run by their descendants. Others of this type are Zhang Jia Beef Noodles (21 YanPing S. Rd.) and right next door to it the Muslim Beef Noodles Restaurant (23 YanPing S. Rd.).

Of these, Chungkuo is the largest and most modern. For NT$155, you can enjoy a flavorful bowl of traditional Taiwanese beef noodle soup. Also recommended is the beef with pancakes, which resembles Peking duck in style and flavor (you can request a less sweet style if you prefer). Also be sure to also try some of the side dishes, such as the sliced cucumbers and Chinese eggplant.

Tajin Moroccan Cuisine (塔吉摩洛哥料理)

No. 3, Lane 144, Keelung Rd., Sec. 2. If you’re looking for a delicious meal that’s a bit different from what you’re used to, Tajin Moroccan may be the answer to your search. The owner, Hicham Samh, is from Morocco and seeks to provide an authentic Moroccan experience, starting with the interior design and decoration, as well as the traditional music playing in the background.

Among the signature dishes are Ourzazata Traditional Lamb (摩洛哥羊肉) and an excellent Marrakech Cheese Kofta (番茄起士牛肉丸). The set meals include saffron rice and pita bread. For an extra charge, very good couscous and humus are available.

Also recommended is the Meknes Beef with Plums (番紅花牛肉蜜棗). The spiciness of the beef together with the slight sweet-and-sour flavor of the plums makes for a very tasty combination. Finish the meal with the excellent coffee or mint tea, and the desserts include dates (try these!), marshmallow treats, and yogurt.

Safronbolu Turkish Restaurant (番紅花城土耳其餐廳);

60 NanJing E. Rd., Sec. 2. The elegant interior and cushioned seats create a very comfortable and welcoming atmosphere. The menu options include eggplant with yogurt, lamb kebab, lentil soup, and a good beef pida, which is something like Turkish pizza. The Turkish salad with its bursts of Mediterranean flavors is a good choice to begin the meal.

The cold, sour flavor of the traditional yogurt drink adds a nice refreshing note during the meal, and afterward a cup of Turkish tea and the very sweet but good cookies are a nice way to top it off.

TAIWAN, Taipei; “Eggplant Lamb Kebab” at Safranbolu Turkish Halal restaurant. 31st October, 2016. Credit: Chris Stowers/PANOS

Kunming Islamic (昆明園)

No. 26, Lane 81, FuXing North Rd. Proprietor Yacoob Mah has operated the current Kunming Islamic Restaurant for more than 20 years, earning a reputation for very tasty dishes and building a loyal clientele. The restaurant offers what Mah describes as “international” dishes, primarily based on the cuisines of India, Thailand, Burma, and the Middle East.

Frequent customer Jason Sliman regards the Kunming as his favorite restaurant, and his favorite dish is the Chili Prawn (辣醬蝦). “The sauce is out of this world,” he raves.

The menu offers quite a bit of variety. Start with the moist and well-flavored vegetable samosas – the best we’ve had in Taiwan. Another good early selection is the Burmese Cold Tea Salad. The Indian chapati bread and humus make good pairings with other dishes, such as the coconut chicken and spicy lamb.

Taj Indian Restaurant (泰姬印度餐廳)

No. 1, Lane 48, Civic Blvd., Sec. 4). Taipei has several halal-certified Indian/Pakistani restaurants. One we especially enjoyed was the Taj Indian, whose pleasant interior design is highlighted by beautiful tapestries on the walls. The Taj offers a comprehensive menu, such as chicken palaak (curry chicken with spinach) and dahl macani (lentils with kidney beans). Try the potato parata as a change from the more common naan bread.

Yunus Halal Restaurant (Thai) (清真泰富豪)

36 BeiNing Rd. Yunus offers a very friendly atmosphere and a menu containing a mix of Thai and Chinese dishes, with an emphasis on the former. The dishes are tasty – imaginatively prepared and attractively presented. An English menu with photos is available (although the photos don’t really do justice to the food).

Royal Café and Restaurant (Indonesian)

72 XinSheng S. Rd., Sec. 2. This simple shop, offering tasty Indonesian flavors at very reasonable prices, is situated just a few doors south of the Taipei Grand Mosque. The food, while not exotic, is very enjoyable. We had the mie goreng (Indonesian fried noodles) and two glasses of iced tea for only NT$180.

Kunming’s Yakoob Mah: Long Journey to a Good Place

Yakoob Mah was born in what was then called Burma to Muslim parents from China’s Yunnan Province. Mah’s father was a member of the Kuomintang army during the Chinese Civil War, and was among many soldiers who withdrew to Burma after China fell to the Communists. As hopes of retaking the mainland faded, young Mah was sent to Taiwan to study, and eventually the rest of the family followed.

Years later, after taking his father back to visit Yunnan, he realized that “In Burma we were refugees, when we arrived in Taiwan we were ‘mainlanders,’ and when we went back to Yunnan for a visit, we were ‘Taiwan compatriots (台胞)’! It was as if we didn’t really belong anywhere.”

In the early 1980s, Mah established the first Kunming restaurant – named in honor of his grandmother, a native of Kunming – across from the Taipei World Trade Center on Keelung Road. Serving halal food, the restaurant did very well, and attracted many customers from among wealthy Muslim businessmen from Saudi Arabia and other locations. They encouraged him to shift from the Chinese cuisine he originally offered to fare from India, Thailand, and other areas that might suit the tastes of more Muslims. He thus gradually moved his menu in that direction.

Taiwan’s economy was booming, and so was Mah’s restaurant. Seeing the potential for further growth, he moved the restaurant to a location behind the Sogo Department Store. But this move coincided with a downturn in Taiwan’s economy as China’s rise began to attract business people away from Taiwan. In those circumstances, this second restaurant failed.

Mah says this was a very difficult time in his life, and his spirits were low. Perhaps he had been too greedy, he thought. Eventually, he was able to put together enough funds to open the third Kunming, which is the current restaurant.

With a slight choke in his voice, he says: “This place has been lucky for me.” He believes God (Allah) gave this opportunity to him, and he is very thankful for it. In the same year that he opened his current restaurant, he experienced another life-changing event with the birth of his daughter. He happily notes that this year she has begun attending university in Tainan.

Mah says one lesson he learned from his earlier difficulties was the importance of having a diversified customer base. If the winds of change blow and one type of customer declines, there will be others to enable the business to continue. Currently Mah says that about half of his customers are local Taiwanese and half are expatriates and overseas tourists.

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