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09-03-05, 17:53
Hong Kong Restaurants Come Up With Ramadan Delicacies
Mark McCord, Agence France Presse

HONG KONG, 19 October 2004 — Steaming hot in a bamboo basket, the dim sum dumplings served at Ayeshah’s Cantonese restaurant look no different from those served in any of the myriad eateries in this food-obsessed city.

Delicate and yellow, the variety known as siu mai is as identifiably Hong Kong as the city’s famous harbor. But Ayeshah’s delicacies have a difference: Unlike the traditional recipe that encases minced pork and prawns within wafer-thin pastry, the dumplings served in this halal version of a Cantonese restaurant are filled instead with chicken and prawns.

“It’s tastier and healthier,” boasts Dorothy Ayeshah Choi, owner of the busy little diner in an up-market neighborhood of the city’s famous Wan Chai district.

Ayeshah’s has adapted traditional Cantonese cuisine to suit the religious dietary regulations of the southern Chinese city’s 60,000 Muslim population during Ramadan.

Most halal restaurants here simply swap regular ingredients with those prepared in the Islamic tradition.

But Ayeshah’s, and a handful of other halal Chinese restaurants, have made an effort to give their Muslim customers the sort of fare that diners expect from regular Cantonese cuisine.

“You can adapt any food to suit halal regulations,” says Abdul Kadir, manager of the Shadowman Cyber Cafe, a small cafe in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood, close to one of the city’s six major mosques. “We cook all sorts of cuisines; we even have halal hot dogs.”

“It is not hard to adapt Cantonese food if you think about it,” Ayeshah, who converted to Islam after marrying a Shanghai-born Chinese Muslim, told AFP. “You don’t have to stray far from the traditional Cantonese cuisine.”

Halal meat, like kosher food for Jews, must be prepared in a particular way. The cooking process must observe specific rules, most importantly that the meat is thoroughly cooked.

Unlike many other religious festivals, Ramadan, as a time of fast, has no special dishes associated with it. But Ayeshah’s and Shadowman will be staying open later to feed worshippers when their daily fasts end at dusk.

“It’s a nice easy time for us,” said Kadir. “We only work at night.” Some 30,000 of Hong Kong’s Muslims are ethnic Chinese. The faith is believed to have fanned out through China after arriving centuries ago via Spice Road traders.

Chinese Muslims are known locally as Wui Gao To, the local transliteration of the Mandarin word Uighur, or “Islamic people”, the name given to an ethnic group from China’s northwest.

For them, the biggest hurdles to cooking halal Cantonese cuisine is the prohibition of two ingredients vital to any Chinese kitchen: Pork and cooking wine.

“Wine is used to take away the gamey flavor of meat, but that can be just as easily done with a spice taken from the peel of dried mandarins,” Ayeshah says.

“And as for pork, well chicken is tastier and better for you anyway — it’s a very good substitute.”

Although she serves the usual Cantonese favorites — lots of seafood, none of which is prohibited by Islamic rules, plenty of noodles and lots of thick spicy sauces — there are a few dishes she has created herself.

Apart from her dumplings, which she insists her non-Muslim regulars prefer to the usual pork-filled variety, she has a number of beef dishes, for instance with black bean sauce or bell peppers, that retain the essence of Cantonese flavors but which wouldn’t usually be found on a Chinese menu. She has also devised her own shark’s fin soup recipe, which usually needs a good strong ham for the broth, but in which she instead uses chicken stock.

And for her customers of South Asian descent she has created various curries, one of which employs her signature roast chicken, which is cooked long and slow until it is completely crispy.

“Many people think we are unable to eat most things, but there isn’t a lot we are forbidden from taking,” Mohamed Alladin, chairman of the United Organization of Muslims, says. “It’s a question of hygiene. We don’t eat pork because pigs are considered dirty animals.”

The same goes for some other delicacies peculiar to menus across the border in China. “We cannot eat dogs, cats, snakes or anything like you might get in China — it’s just forbidden,” said Kadir.

Hong Kong’s halal Chinese restaurants appear to be gaining a name for themselves outside of religious circles too. Kadir claims that 60 percent of his customers are non-Muslims, while Ayeshah puts the figure at 40 percent at her diner. “I think people are just keen to try something different and healthy,” said Kadir.