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Islamic Cuisine in China

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Ethnic Minorities and Their Foods

Summer Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(2) page(s): 7 and 35

Hui in China means all who practice the Islamic faith and/or it means one of China’s fifty-five recognized minority populations. Hui people, as they prefer to be called, are also known as Dongan people. They are the largest of ten ethnic nationality groups and not the only Muslin minority population in China practicing the Islamic faith. There are about seven and a half million or more of this Chinese population group, and at least nine other nationality groups who are followers of Islam including Uygur, Kazak, Tatar, Kirgiz, Tajik, Uzbek, Dongxiang, Salar, and Bonan nationalities. Together, these populations number more than fifteen million people.

The minority nationality groups have been practicing their faith, eating differently, and dressing differently for centuries, a few for millenia. Each one is not exactly like another, yet they have a lot in common. This includes faith and food, and birth, marriage ,and death practices. All of these can be very different from the Han. That may explain why China’s political leaders for a long time have had a major program for integrating them and reducing these differences..

Kirgiz people have the longest recorded history in China, historical records speak of them, but they had different names in China’s ancient history. Almost all of these peoples have had name changes, so learning about them is complicated. While some were indigenous to China, others came and settled there. Salar and Uzbek have origins in Central Asia and Samarkand, most others have forefathers who were Arabs and Persians.

Islam was introduced to China in the six hundreds, some specify the date as 651 CE. The religion entered with traders who practiced it, maybe religious folk who proselytized it, and crafts people, and others. Most of them arrived via one of the many routes where goods moved East to West and in the opposite direction. It was not just their religion that made its way into China, dress, behaviors, butchering, so did Islamic cuisine practices.

Islamic culinary prohibitions and practices are stated in the Quran (known to many in the west as the Koran). They are based on ‘pure’ and ‘true’ beliefs. These teachings influence how all Muslims prepare their food, what they eat, and with whom. Muslims believe teachings from the writings in the Quran to be the literal word of God. They consider Arabic their sacred language, and know that chapters two, five, six, and sixteen of this important work to be God’s revelations to Mohammad in terms of their dietary prescriptions.

Correctly known as Alquran, or The Memorandum of Mohammad, this book dictates what and how Muslims, no matter where they live, eat and behave. It speaks of ‘good food’ which includes beef, mutton, chicken, duck, goose, and some fresh aquatic foods. They are halal, ’pure,’ or ‘good.’ Animals, such as China’s main meat, namely pork, and all animals that died naturally, even if one of these, are haram. That means they are 'unpure,' ‘bad,’ ‘dirty,’ not to be eaten or even touched. They are considered inedible as is the flesh of all scavengers and foragers besides the pig. That includes, among others, crabs, clams, wolves, eagles, tigers, dogs, snakes, and even cats. Consuming animal blood from any animal, pure or not, is also strictly forbidden.

What sets all who follow Islam further apart from the Han majority, is that they can only buy their food from Muslim purveyors. They must use Muslim butchers who pay strict attention to the cleanliness of animal and self, care about slaughtering in the most human manner, and saying appropriate prayers when doing so. In addition, Islam people only kill animals when needed for food. It is common for them to share the slaughtered animal so none goes to waste. Another item that sets them apart is that Muslims do not drink alcoholic beverages, no matter how minimal the alcoholic content, as that is also considered haram, or 'unpure.'

All vegetables can be eaten, none are haram, unless they have been contaminated by touching another haram or 'forbidden food.' The same is true for grains and fruits with one exception. All of them are not considered halal or 'pure' if they become fermented.

One of the favorite foods of the Hui, and all Muslim populations, are grilled pancakes. In China, they call them dabing and are not the usual western-looking thin pancake. Commonly, they are two inches thick and six to sixteen inches in diameter. Most are grilled, a few are fried; some are stuffed, most are not. Second to their love of pancakes is their love of noodles, whether they are made from wheat, rice, or any vegetable flour. In the vegetable category, they grind and use mung or soy beans, use dry yams, sweet potatoes, and many other vegetables and pulses, then grind them to make these pancakes and noodles.

Rice, they cook pillau style probably because their ancestral roots are Central European and Middle Eastern. At main meals, they serve both rice and noodles, but in separate preparations. As the pancakes are made many ways, so are the noodles. They roll, cut, hand-pull, and/or pinch them before boiling, baking, or frying them. No matter the way, they prefer them fresh and homemade and not store-bought. They like them rough and uneven on the outside, soft and tender within.

Practicing Muslims, and most men do practice their religion, means praying five times a day, and always facing Mecca. Showing respect, men and women remove their shoes before entering a mosque, cover their heads in prayer, and on their knees, bend and touch heads to the ground, when saying appropriate prayers. Women always keep their heads covered, the color of their head-covering indicating if they are married or single. And, the color can vary among Islamic groups.

Hui, about half the Muslim population in China, and the largest and most visible Muslim minority, have not always been accepted there. It is better under the present political leadership, but prejudice against them has not totally disappeared. They are different and bothered because of what they eat and do not eat, and what and how they pray. To the Chinese, the term Hui has always been a religious category, not a nationality. For centuries, to the Chinese, Hui meant Islam and it still does.

When as foreign sojourners, the Hui came to China, many liked it there and stayed. They intermarried with the Han and some of their descendants still have blond hair and blue eyes. Many are easily mistaken for Caucasians. Carl Chu in Finding Chinese Food in Los Angeles (reviewed in this issue's hard copy on pages 18 and 19) says that the Islamic cuisine they brought to China mirrors their social assimilation. There is some diminution of adherance to the Quran, but most Chinese Muslims still adhere to its dietary laws. Because they do and keep allegiance to a foreign religion, they remain outside the social mainstream.

Not much has been written about the food habits and cuisine of Muslims in China. This issue explores that. Martha Weeks graciously wrote an article about the Dungan/Hui people. It begins on page 9 of the hard copy. A review of a Chinese Islamic restaurant in a suburb of Los Angeles appears in tis issue (pade 24 in the hard copy). A new book, Between Mecca and Beijing is also reviewed in this issue (on page 18). It specifically looks at modernization and consumption among urban Chinese Muslims.
Lamb Shanks with Cumin
3 Tablespoons corn or another vegetable oil
3 small to medium-sized lamb shanks (about 1½ pounds)
6 whole garlic cloves
1/2 cup mushroom soy sauce
1/2 cup Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 to 3 Tablespoons whole cumin seeds
2 whole coriander seeds
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon cold water
1. Heat oil in a heavy pot and fry the lamb shanks, one at a time, until they are brown on all sides.
2. Add garlic, mushroom soy, rice wine, sugar, black pepper, and the cumin and coriander seeds, and a cup of cold water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, return the lamb shanks to the pot, and cover it.
3. Simmer for two hours covered, then uncover and simmer another half to one hour or until the lamb falls off the bones when touched with a fork. When it does, remove the lamb from the liquid, and allow it to cool somewhat.
4. Return the lamb to the pot., bring the liquid to the boil and be sure the lamb is hot. Add the cornstarch mixture and allow it to thicken, and then serve.
Pan-fried Noodles, Northern Style
1/4 cup dried corn kernels
2 Tablespoons corn oil
2 Tablespoons cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 dry red chili, seeded and crushed
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 Tablespoon dark or mushroom soy sauce
4 cups cooked, cooled noodles (not too thin, preferred)
3 Tablespoons minced Yunnan (or Smithfield or another dry-cured) ham
1. Soak corn kernels overnight in warm water, then drain and dry with paper towels. If using fresh or canned corn, heat an oven to 300 degrees, turn the oven off and put the kernels in to dry for an hour.
2. Heat oil and fry cumin, white pepper, and crushed chili pepper for half a minute, no more. Then add the coriander, and corn, mix well, and fry for another half minute.
3. Add soy sauce and the noodles, and toss until the noodles are heated through, then add the ham and serve.
Beef with Cumin
10 slices of boneless beef loin, about half pound
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper or Sichuan pepper powder
3 slices fresh ginger, minced fine
1/2 scallion, white part only, minced fine
1 teaspoon ground star anise
2 Tablespoons rice wine
1/4 cup water chestnut flour
1 cup corn oil
1. Hit each meat slice with the flat side of the cleaver blade to thin and flatten it out. Then cut each in half.
2. Fry cumin and salt in a wok for two minutes until very fragrant. Set aside to cool, then mix with the cornstarch, and set this aside.
3. Mix pepper, ginger, scallion, and star anise, then stir in the wine. Use this mixture to wet all sides of the meat, brushing it on or spreading with fingers works best. Allow the meat to rest for half an hour.
4. Next, rub the cumin mixture on all meat surfaces, then dust liberally with water chestnut flour. Set the meat aside covered, in the refrigerator, for an hour.
5. Heat oil, and fry the meat, until lightly browned. Do this in two batches for most crispness. Drain on paper towels, put them on a platter and serve.
Pickled Cabbage
1 small head white cabbage; about one and a half pounds
1 Tablespoon coarse salt
4 dried red chili peppers, seeded and crushed
1 teaspoon cumin
1. Cut cabbage into one to two inch pieces, then rinse and shake them dry.
2. Toss cabbage pieces with salt and let rest for an hour.
3. Mix peppers and cumin, then mix well with the cabbage.
4. Pack them tightly into a clean jar (washed out just before using with boiling water). Put in a dark place, such as a closet, for five to seven days, then serve.
Bean Curd with Salt and Spices
4 firm pieces of bean curd (about a pound)
1 envelope chicken bouillon powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds, smashed with end of cleaver handle
1 Tablespoon fresh coriander, minced
1 small dried chili pepper, seeded and crushed
1/2 sheet green seaweed, crushed or ½ teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 cup corn oil, for frying
1. Cut each piece of bean curd into four pieces.
2. Mix all rest of the ingredients well, gently toss with the cubes of bean curd. Try to have some of this mixture on all sides. Set it aside for half an hour.
3. Heat oil and fry the cubes of bean curd a few at a time; do not overcrowd the wok or pan; and keep stirring them until lightly browned. The drain on paper towels, and do the next batch. It is best to do this in three or four batches. When all are fried, serve.
Lamb Ribs, Northern Style
1/2 cup oil
1 pound lamb ribs, cut into two-inch pieces
1 clove garlic, sliced thin
1 Tablespoon whole cumin, crushed with end of cleaver handle
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon whole fennel, crushed--with end of the cleaver handle
1 teaspoon chili sauce
1. Heat oil and fry lamb ribs until golden brown, constantly stirring them. Drain and cool for about half an hour, reserving the oil.
2. Mix garlic, cumin, salt, pepper, and fennel, then add the cornstarch and rub this mixture on all sides of the lamb ribs. Cover and refrigerate for an hour.
3. Take two tablespoons of the reserved oil, and heat, they fry ribs again, for about five minutes. Add half cup of water and continue to fry, stirring constantly, until all the water is either absorbed or evaporated; then serve.

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