Running a restaurant that serves Halal Chinese food is not an easy thing to do in Hong Kong.
Wai Kee is a restaurant that has been serving Halal roasted meats for over 30 years. Despite being the only restaurant in Hong Kong to do so, despite a long history and despite growing business, Osman Wong, current owner of the restaurant, says that it will still take some time before Wai Kee evolves into a large business.
“It used to be that those from the Middle East thought barbequed duck was not Halal because it’s usually eaten by the Chinese, but the situation is much better now,” Mr. Wong says. “But Wai Kee is still just a small business.
The word “Halal” is a term used to describe food that is permissible for consumption by Islamic law. The Quran, which is equivalent of the Bible, tells Muslims: “He (Allah) hath only forbidden you dead meat, and blood, and the flesh of swine”.
Such restrictions are related to health and hygiene. Muslims cannot eat meat of animals that have died by themselves, for it is not known if the animals died due to illness. They cannot eat anything from pigs either, because the animal is considered unclean, for it eats anything it is given.
As for blood, the substance not only transports nutrients within our bodies, but also metabolic wastes, so to conform with Islamic ritual, meat has to be drained of blood before it is consumed.
“When it comes to Halal food, we focus on the health issue,” says Louis Ma, the owner of Ma’s Restaurant, which serves Halal Chinese food. “When you compare the time it takes to rot for raw pork, beef, lamb and chicken, you find that pork is always the first to turn bad.”
Located in Kowloon, Ma’s Restaurant serves a variety of Halal foods, in particular dumplings and other items from the cookery of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang province.
Restaurants like Ma’s often find that one of the biggest challenges is to ensure that the ingredients they obtain are authentically Halal. As it is not permissible to self-slaughter animals in Hong Kong, Halal restaurant owners have to resort to importing their meat, from such countries as Australia, New Zealand and China.
Both Mr. Wong and Mr. Ma agree that it is much more convenient nowadays to obtain Halal meat than it was a few years ago, due to the increasing number of Muslims in Hong Kong.
Mr. Ma adds that the convenience is also due to the steadily growing number of Muslims in China nowadays. This means that meaning that most of the animals are slaughtered according to Islamic law in the country, which “increases the quantity of Halal meat available for import”.
According to The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the Muslim population in China experienced a 38.4% growth from 1999 to 2010, and is projected to increase from 23.3 million in 2010 to 30 million by 2030.
Islamic Halal law has many similarities to Jewish Kashrut, or Kosher, law, and in some ways the Kosher laws are even stricter. Eyar Ginati, Kosher supervisor at the Ohel Leah Synagogue, says running a Kosher food shop in Hong Kong is even more difficult than running a Halal business.
“For Halal food, you can get it from all over the world,” Mr. Ginati says. “But the restrictions of the Kosher law make it much harder to obtain Kosher food.”
“There are not many customers we can expose [Kosher food] to. If we compare the same meat, it will be much more expensive if it is Kosher, and people will prefer to buy cheaper meat. I cannot imagine a large pool of customers.”
However, although obtaining Halal food has become easier, the cost of the ingredients remains higher compared with non-Halal food, which makes it hard for Halal restaurants to be competitive. According to Mr. Ma, the profit difference for one dish can be as high as 40 percent.
“It might cost them (non-Halal restaurants) only $10 to obtain the ingredients and they can sell the dish at $15,” he says. “But for us, the ingredients may cost $12, yet we also have to sell the same dish at $15, because we don’t want to lose customers.”
“It’s a more laborious process when we request for Halal meat because the animals have to be slaughtered by hand, and we also have to make sure that the blood does not pollute the meat. Because it’s much more complicated than say, electrocuting the animal (which Islamic law forbids), therefore it will cost more to order Halal meat.”
For some, the adjective “laborious” also applies within the restaurant. In order to ensure that everything is Halal and pork-free, Jaman Markar, operator of the Islamic Centre Canteen at the Masjid Ammar and Osman Ramju Sadick Islamic Centre in Wan Chai, makes sure that all dim sum is prepared from scratch, whether it be the fillings of steamed chicken buns or the opaque dough for “har gow”, steamed shrimp dumplings.
The canteen also makes its own XO sauce, which Muslims normally cannot eat because it contains dry-cured ham.
The only exception is spring roll sheets, which can be ordered from outside because, according to Mr. Markar, they are Halal. Even though it is a laborious process for the chefs at the canteen, the staff are paid satisfactory wages because Mr. Markar wants them to “work happily”.
“The chef has an approximate salary of $20,000 per month, while other staff, whether it be cleaning staff or waiters, get at least $9,000,” Mr. Markar says.
The amazing thing is, the dim sum sold at the canteen remains at $12 for a large portion, $10 for a medium portion and $8 for a small one. These prices are the same as when Mr. Markar started his business in 2005.
Despite inflation, Mr. Markar has not been able to adjust the price of the food sold at the canteen because of what he described as “personal politics”.
“Business is actually getting better and better,” Mr. Markar says. “But sometimes, you just have to be willing to suffer some losses.”
The canteen offers free food and beverages for all those who come to the mosque during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, to break fast when the sun sets, as well as during other Islamic festivals.
There are increasing numbers of Muslims in Hong Kong, whether it be permanent residents or tourists. Mr. Markar says more and more Muslim tourist groups come to the canteen to have a taste of Halal Cantonese dim sum, and this has boosted business.
Despite this, the number of restaurants serving Halal food has not grown in proportion with the increasing demand.
Mariana Xu, a Muslim undergraduate student at The University of Hong Kong, says she still finds it difficult to find Halal food in Hong Kong.
“I’m not terribly strict when it comes to eating Halal food,” Miss Xu says. “But if I could choose, I would still prefer to eat Halal.”
Although businesses are running much more smoothly now than compared to a few years ago, owners of Halal restaurants remain dubious about expanding business, or about Halal food becoming better known in Hong Kong.
“Of course I hope Wai Kee will evolve eventually,” Mr. Wong says. “But it will be rather difficult, because it means the business partner I pair up with must also be a Muslim, so that the restaurant can live up to the reputation of serving Halal food.”
Islamic Centre Canteen
5/F, Oi Kwan Road, Wan Chai.
Tel: (852) 2834 8211
Shop 5, 1/F, 2/F, Bowrington Road Market, 21 Bowrington Road, Wan Chai.
Tel: (852) 2574 1131
G/F, 21-25 Cheung Sha Wan Road, Sham Shui Po.
Tel: (852) 2398 8019