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Halal haute cuisine

By Pauline D Loh | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2016-08-28 07:07

Editor's note: To understand China, sit down to eat. Food is the indestructible bond that holds the whole social fabric together and it is also one of the last strong visages of community and culture.

There are about 20 million Muslims in China, or slightly more than 1.6 percent of the total population.

According to most recent population counts, that number includes Hui, Uighurs, Khalkhas, Kazaks and Uzbek minorities, mainly spread over provinces such as Gansu, Qinghai, Yunnan provinces and the Xinjiang Ugur and Ningxia Hui autonomous regions. But there are Muslims living in almost every large city across China.

 Halal haute cuisine

Erduoyan Zhagao is known for halal cuisine in Tianjin. Photos by Pauline D Loh / China Daily

We have come to identify halal cuisine as associated with Xinjiang and Ningxia due to their more significant Muslim communities, yet halal food in the northern cities of Beijing, Tianjin and Xi'an, too, boasts a long history.

Halal food is prepared according to the religious requirements of the Islamic faith.

Islam itself entered China as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907) with the first traders along the Silk Road. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), more and more West Asian influences arrived as the marauding Mongolians swept across Asia right to the fringes of Europe.

When the armies returned to China, they brought along migrants who were craftsmen, traders and mercenaries. Perhaps some were even reluctant bounties of war.

My first impressions of Muslim food had come from the delicious curries, rice and noodle dishes from my home in Southeast Asia. Later, in China, it came mainly from the cumin-dusted lamb skewers that originated from Xinjiang but are now standard street fare in almost every city.

Later, again in Beijing, I discovered whole roast lamb, mutton hotpots, tripe salads and the delicate pastries that are all continuing legacies of the Muslim pioneers.

But it was not until a recent visit to the port city of Tianjin that I was surprised with halal food, haute cuisine style.

It has now become a relaxing weekend retreat for harried Beijingers, being just a 30-minute train ride away.

Visitors to Tianjin are beginning to discover yet another dining option.

What few realize is that the city has a well-established Muslim community of more than 200,000 who have contributed much to Tianjin's epicurean style, including many of its iconic street snacks.

Zhagao, or fried cake, is an example. A light, glutinous rice dough is made into dumplings filled with sweet bean paste. It is then deep-fried until the insides are cottony soft, with a crusty crisp skin.

The most famous is Erduoyan Zhagao, which started off on a little handcart but is now housed in an imposing, three-story building with colorful facades and bronze pavement sculptures commemorating its humble past.

Now, aside from selling its famous zhagao, the restaurant is known for its halal cuisine. Diners fight to get on the two-month waiting list, and private dining rooms are almost impossible to book unless you are a familiar and generous regular or know an insider.

Halal cuisine is pork-free and uses mainly lamb, beef and chicken. Tianjin is unique in that it also uses lots of seafood and river produce.

At Erduoyan, the signature dishes include a braised oxtail stew, stir-fried lamb with egg and black wood-ear mushrooms, or muxurou, deep-fried sweet and sour fish fillets creatively stacked on the plate, and a beautifully crafted prawn in chicken stock named after the Chinese peony.

Vegetable dishes included a mustard stem lightly blanched in chicken stock, braised tender Chinese yam and peeled cherry tomatoes seasoned with pickled plums.

Erduoyan is the total package, with opulent decor perfectly color coordinated with blue and white crockery, cutlery, and table linen down to the qipao worn by the waitresses.

That is also the reason most of its dishes command three-digit prices. As our friendly but astute Uber driver told us on our drive back to the hotel, it's mostly for the rich and famous.

On a less opulent scale but equally impressive is another restaurant in Tianjin's Muslim quarter named Yongyuancheng.

According to my host Wang Jun, a newly retired Tianjin tourism board official and a Muslim himself, this is the real deal. This is where Tianjin Muslim families gather on special occasions, he says, as we sat down and he proceeded to give us a history lesson.

Tianjin Muslims were among those who first came to China during the Yuan Dynasty and they filtered down south from Xi'an and Beijing. Most still practice their faith, especially observing food restrictions.

The food at Yongyuancheng is definitely less decorative and more hearty, and Wang was happy to share his favorite dishes.

First up was a deliciously simple prawn dish, seasoned with ginger juice, lightly dusted with starch and deep-fried. Unlike the usual Chinese prawn fritters, the flavor shone through the pink morsels, and I particularly enjoyed the subtle fragrance of ginger.

Another Wang family favorite was the brown-braised flatfish known locally as dieyu or butterfly fish. It looks like a sole but slimmer than a turbot, with harder bones and thicker meat. Shallow-fried and braised, it was an unexpectedly hearty dish.

Next, we had an ox tongue, thinly sliced and soused in a savory, sesame-scented brown sauce, followed by stir-fried lamb with Chinese leeks. We also got to taste beef and prawn dumplings called shaomai.

The dumplings are robust in both shape and flavor, and you need to like the honest pastoral origins of beef to appreciate them.

Both meals offered an insight into Chinese Muslim food and its evolution through history. Judging from its popularity, halal haute cuisine may well soon become yet another important branch of China's rich gastronomic heritage instead of hovering in the background.


Tianjin's favorite halal dishes

Lamb tripe salad

Boiled tripe is served with a vinegary dressing, hot chili oil and plenty of coriander. The tripe is almost crisp in texture and the chili oil and coriander make you forget it is offal.

Braised oxtail

Tender sections of oxtail are cooked in a sesame oil-based sauce. The fragrant sauce and the fall-off-the-bone texture make this dish an all-time favorite. The use of spices is sparing and subtle.

Peony prawns

At first sight, it is a multi-petaled peony nestling in a pond of crystal liquid, surrounded by a few green leaves. In actual fact, the flower is crafted from a few prawns carefully woven together so they blossom into a flower when carefully scalded with chicken stock.

Stir-fried lamb

This is the mutton version of muxurou, a Beijing classic that uses pork. The lamb slices are fried with black wood-ear mushrooms and cucumber, with scrambled eggs.

Mahua fish fillets

Fillets of fish are battered, deep-fried and coated in a sweet and sour sauce. They are then arranged in a twisted tower that resembles Tianjin's famous dough fritter snack - the mahua.

Mustard stems in top stock

A light vegetable dish that is deceptively simple. The mustard stems can make the stock very bitter if they are actually cooked in it. The solution is to cook them in a batch of flavorful broth, then serve them in fresh stock.

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