RESTAURANTS serving dishes made from livestock slaughtered according to Islamic principles are popular with Shanghai residents ? Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Yao Minji goes on the trail of where to find the best beef noodles, mutton ribs and hotpots in town.
Pudong Mosque, built in 1935, is not only famous for its history and architecture, but also for the Suzhou-style mooncakes it sells every year around the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Available in sweet and savory versions, with halal meat replacing pork products found in other mooncakes, Muslims and non-Muslims travel long distances to queue for the crispy, tasty and inexpensive snacks, which are sold in simple boxes.
The popularity of halal food among non-Muslims is not confined to mooncakes. Halal meat, which comes from animals slaughtered by a swift, deep incision cutting the throat, carotid artery, wind pipe and jugular veins, is commonly recognized as good quality and fresh. As a result, many non-Muslims in Shanghai choose to eat beef and mutton from halal restaurants.
Pudong Mosque starts offering its annual mooncakes tomorrow and also sells other halal food and snacks on Fridays.
The tradition of halal food in China dates back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), around AD 651, with the arrival of the first Muslim immigrants from the Middle East. Their economic success, through the influence of the Silk Road, saw them settle and flourish.
By the beginning of the 14th century, in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), it became popular for non-Muslims to eat mutton, a new addition to Chinese menus. Kitchen records from the time period show that large amount of mutton was served in daily royal meals.
It was also around this time that Shanghai started to see its own fledgling Muslim population develop, with the first mosque built in suburban Songjiang District.
Today, the most concentrated populations of Muslims in China are in Gansu and Qinghai provinces and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
In Shanghai there are seven mosques that, in addition to the regular worship functions, assist in the regulation of halal meat production, alongside the government's Ethnic and Religious Affairs Office. A certificate must be obtained before a restaurant or a business can declare itself halal.
The word is derived from Arabic and means to be permissible or allowed. Halal meat must first undergo the ritual of Zibah, the details of which are set out in the Qur'an, the central religious text of Islam.
It includes rules such as all flowing blood must be drained from the carcass, pork must not be consumed and animals must not see others being slaughtered, among many.
On Shanghai streets, it is not difficult to find the iconic blue pasture-and-cow signs identifying restaurants that use halal meat.
Most common are halal beef noodle eateries, found all over the city. The menu is usually simple, featuring just beef noodles, roast mutton, steamed beef, steamed mutton and some snacks.
The noodles are Lanzhou-style hand-pulled noodles, known for their chewy texture. The soup looks clear and light, but the flavor and freshness of the meat permeates both soup and noodles.
One of the most famous and biggest of these noodle shops is Dunhuang Lou Lanzhou Halal Beef Noodle Restaurant on Zhongshan Road N., known for its tasty soup of noodles and various mutton dishes.
Diners can choose from noodles of different widths, while the beef that accompanies the noodles is cooked to optimum tenderness and the vegetables remained fresh and crisp. They are served in a semi-transparent noodle soup, with a few drops of red chili oil.
More expensive restaurants with a wider menu also appeal to the halal market, such as the well-established Hong Chang Xing. Founded in 1891, it is the first name that comes to mind for many people when talking about halal restaurants in the city.
The restaurant, where a meal costs about 100 yuan (US$15.7) to 150 yuan per person, offers a wide variety of mutton and beef dishes, along with a healthy sprinkling of cold and hot vegetable fare. Its signature dish ? the hotpot ? is what most people keep coming back for.
From the outside, the restaurant at 288 Guangxi Road N. looks as though it's seen better days, but the constant stream of patrons from nearby Nanjing Road E. makes one wonder what's hidden behind the walls.
Spacious and well-decorated in an Islamic style, Hong Chang Xing sits on the 10th floor and comes with two menus, one for generic restaurant food and the other for its signature hotpot.
The hotpot is a squat copper contraption, fueled by a small coal burning fire. A container of boiling water is kept hot and a tangy peanut sauce is mixed for dipping. It is recommended to quickly dip the meat as it has been cut into very thin slices that cook rapidly.
Dining on hotpot is a highly sociable activity, as the process of cooking creates a homely atmosphere.
The Bi Zhen Restaurant on Changshou Road is another popular halal dining option, which also offers a variety of other dishes on the menu, including seafood.
A signature dish is roasted mutton ribs, cooked to just the right balance of being crispy and juicy, while the secret sauce permeates right through the meat. Another is the beef in a pot. Pre-sauced beef is quickly fried to keep the skin crisp before it is placed in a pot to slowly broil. Seafood specialties include spicy fish head and soy sauced eel.