Finding halal food in foreign countries is one of the challenges Muslim travellers usually face.
However in China, it is not so difficult to find a Muslim restaurant in major tourist cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Chengdu, Guilin and Guangzhou.
Halal food was one of my main concerns when I first came to Beijing for the China Asia Pacific Press Centre 2022 programme, at the invitation of the China Public Diplomacy Association. I had doubts over the accessibility of Muslim restaurants in the city especially when Muslims only comprise up to 2% of China’s population of 1.4 billion.
(Organised by the China International Press Communication Centre, the programme saw the participation of over 70 international media practitioners from various nations.)
Many questions had been playing on my mind when I first arrived in China in mid-July: Where do they get their halal food supply? How do they perform their religious obligations?
All these questions were answered when I visited the Niujie Mosque, the oldest and largest mosque in Beijing, and one of the world’s most famous mosques, located in the sub-district of Guang’anmen in Xicheng.
Niujie is in the city’s largest Muslim district, home to more than 300,000 Muslims of the Hui ethnic group.
Using a map app to guide me, I picked up the courage to travel alone to Niujie from where I live in Jianguomen (located in the heart of Beijing city), using the subway for the first time.
After a 40-minute ride, I arrived at Nujie. However, I had a rude shock when I got to the mosque as all the doors were closed, with a signboard notifying visitors that it was under construction.
Instead of going back to the city centre, I stayed on, waiting for a “door of opportunity” to enter the mosque and perform the Zohor prayer.
I patiently waited ... and luckily, a man in a white kopiah (cap) soon emerged from the mosque.
“Malaysia,” I said as I introduced myself to the man in his 70s. His name was Wang and thankfully, he allowed me to enter the mosque.
There was a sense of calm when I stepped into the premises of Niujie Mosque. Several men, mostly senior citizens either wearing a kopiah or white robe (jubah), were having a chat while waiting for prayer time – a sight that is no different than in mosques back home.
“Assalamualaikum,” said the imam.
The greeting was indeed heart-warming as it reflects Muslim solidarity that transcends racial boundaries.
But due to language barrier, I could only return the imam’s greeting with a smile.
The Niujie Mosque, the largest of all the mosques in Beijing, was first built in 1996. It is a functioning mosque, as well as a major tourist attraction now, but it has not been fully opened to the public since the start of the pandemic.
From the outside, its architecture shows traditional Chinese influences, while the inside has a blend of Islamic calligraphy and Chinese designs.
The main prayer hall is 600sq m, and can hold more than 1,000 worshippers. The blank white tiles and fixtures look “Muslim”, but the richly-coloured Chinese roofs and designs give it a more Oriental feel.
Many fences, walls and doors are also painted in bright red.
Outside the mosque is a minaret, a lecture room for religious classes and a two-storey tower structure that is called the “tower for watching the moon”. It looks like a two-storey pagoda.
There is also a souvenir shop, as well as an office for the imam within the premises.
According to history, the mosque was first built during the Liao Dynasty (916-1125) and made out of timber. It was named “Liasi” by the emperor in 1474. It covers an area of 10,000sq m, blending both classic Arabic mosque with Chinese royal palace designs.
The mosque has transcended six eras starting from Liao Dynasty, Song Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty, Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty, before entering modern-day China.
Within the period, it has gone through several renovations such as in 1955 and 1979, in addition to a major reconstruction in 1996. This was done in conjunction with its 1,000th anniversary.
Based on information displayed at the mosque, the Niujie Mosque is reserved as a “Key Point of Cultural Heritage & Relic” and has been under state-level protection by the State Council since Jan 13, 1988.
“This is my first visit to Niujie Mosque and it is indeed magnificent, with its original nuances, especially from the architectural and design aspects, which reflect Islamic influence in China,” said Marshalina Gitafadilla Munir, a journalist from Indonesia.
As I was taking pictures of the place, a woman in her 60s greeted me. Without a word, she used hand gestures and body language as a means of communication.
It was clear that she wanted to know where the women’s section for prayers and for “wuduk” (a room designated for ritual washing before daily prayer) was.
Halal food heaven
After prayers, I managed to catch up with Wang. Using a translation app, I expressed my heartfelt gratitude for the opportunity to pray at the mosque and hoped to return with some friends.
Wang only nodded, smiled and gave me a thumbs-up.
Needless to say, travel is incomplete without exploring the neighbourhood and in this case, the streets of Niujie near the mosque and its halal food.
So, without wasting time, I decided to hunt for a place to eat after prayers. Based on some valuable tips shared by local residents, if a building and premise is green in colour, it shows that it is serving halal food. I was glad that the buildings in Niujie were mostly painted green in addition to signboards displaying the word “halal” in Chinese.
Nearly all shops and stalls were selling halal snacks, such as lamb and beef bao, bean soup, Baiji rice cake and various types of bread with halal meat fillings.
A takeaway food outlet was drawing customers who were making a beeline for its popular lamb and beef bao, hot from the oven. I decided to join the line.
Thanks to its efficient staff and the cashless system in place, I did not have to wait long.
“Niujie” literally translates to “ox street” in Mandarin. This area is actually a key market for halal beef and lamb, where the animals are slaughtered in accordance with Islamic laws. In fact meat that is sold in Niujie is said to be among the best in Beijing.
Several restaurants managed by the ethnic Uyghur group from Xinjiang here serve various types of their traditional food, for example the popular lamb kebap.
“During Ramadan, the Niujie area would be packed with Muslims buying halal meat and breaking their fast at Niujie Mosque,” said a local resident.
I couldn’t help but try the lamb kebap. The meat was marinated well and the whole thing was very tasty. Its exquisite taste was similar to the ones sold in Xinjiang, one of the most popular cuisines in the region.
Muslim community in China
The Hui ethnic group is the largest group of Muslims in China, followed by the Uyghur. Both ethnic groups form about 90% of the Muslim population in the country.
The Muslim community there also comprises Kazak, Kirgiz, Uzbek, Tatar, Tajik, Dongxiang, Salad and Bao’an ethnic groups.
An estimated 25 million Muslims are found across country, with Islam being widely spread and focused on small groups. Islam is one of the four main religions officially recognised in China, with Muslims largely found in Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan.
The Xinjiang region has the largest Muslim population (over 50%).
According to Article 36 of the Chinese Constitution, citizens of the People’s Republic of China shall enjoy freedom of religious belief, including Islam. – Hasnah Jusid/Bernama