Sat, Jun 22, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Halal food opens interfaith doors

With producers chasing halal certification and consumers exploring Islamic food and culture, the future is bright for a Muslim-friendly Taiwan

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

At Shams’s Halal Handmade in Daan Forest Park earlier this month, the owner, right, packs baklava for a customer.

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

Before halal certification, the only foods that a Muslim in Taiwan could confidently eat were fruits with peels, and eggs cooked in the shell.

The natural outer coverings ensure that even if these foods are stored next to non-halal products, they remain uncontaminated, says Salahuding Ma (馬超彥), secretary-general of the Chinese Muslim Association (CMA).

Things have come a long way since then.

This year’s Halal Taiwan pavilion — part of a massive international food expo (www.foodtaipei.com.tw) at the Taipei World Trade Center that ends today — consists of over a hundred booths showcasing food, beverage and wellness products made here in accordance with Islamic law.

Most stallholders say that they sought halal certification in order to export to the Southeast Asian market. Even if a product already appears vegetarian (such as peanuts and bubble tea pearls), the certificate is a way of assuring Muslim customers of its integrity.

“Halal certification signifies hygiene and cleanliness. In the international market, this boosts the effectiveness of our marketing,” says Chen Chiao-an (陳喬安), manager at Rice House, which sells gourmet Taiwanese rice.

Since starting its certification program in 2012, CMA has become the largest halal certification body in Taiwan. And Ma is hard-nosed about the business incentive that drives companies’ interest.

He considers market logic a practical way to strengthen understanding of Islam in a country where the local Muslim minority — numbering just 20,000 to 40,000 — is shrinking and still experiences friction with the wider population.

“We are isolated from the outside world. So we have to open the doors,” Ma says.

In order to receive the certification, staff must be trained in the requirements and religious significance of halal principles. Businesses pay NT$6,000 for this training and NT$500 for certification. But the main investments are in maintaining separate, uncontaminated food preparation space and equipment, and keeping trained staff on the payroll.

While Rice House’s certification went smoothly because rice is sold close to its natural state, processed foods face a more complicated inspection that requires more effort to pass.

In other words, halal certification is a commitment of time and money. CMA has no illusions that non-Muslim-owned businesses will only do it if they can sense the pay-off.

Within Taiwan, that pay-off takes the form of tourism. The association has released a mobile app in English, Malay and Indonesian, making it more convenient for tourists to locate the approximately 180 halal restaurants and hotels it has certified around the country.

CMA also conducts religious sensitivity training for tour agencies. In practice, this can mean leaving famous Taoist temples out of a tour itinerary; finding female physicians to treat female tourists; and, in an emergency, meeting the requirements of a Muslim burial within 24 hours.

Their efforts appear to be paying off. This year, Taiwan rose two spots to rank third (joint with Japan and the UK) on the Global Muslim Travel Index of Muslim-friendly countries outside the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, compiled by a Singapore-based consultancy.

But what does all this mean for the average Taiwanese, who is statistically unlikely to be Muslim?

On a recent Sunday, Taipei’s Daan Forest Park crawled with festival-goers celebrating the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Human traffic was high along a row of stalls offering halal Taiwanese-style fried chicken, Indian biryani and Turkish rice pudding.

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