Japanese food gets an Islamic makeover

Singapore restaurants offer halal cuisine to attract Muslim customers

by Siti Rahil

SINGAPORE (Kyodo) Singapore, home of curry sushi and Hainanese chicken rice sushi, is now seeing a new trend emerge, created by Islamic rules on food preparation.

Halal sushi is served by several Japanese restaurants that have become halal to woo the minority Muslim population here and grab a piece of the Muslim market in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Several Japanese restaurants, which are hugely popular here, recently have applied for halal certification from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), an agency of the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports that advises the government on Muslim affairs.

They join a growing number of restaurants here that have gone halal to target Muslims, who account for 15 percent of the city-state’s 4 million population.

The total number of halal certificates issued by MUIS had risen to 8,000 in 2005 from only 2,800 in 2000. They included 1,000 certificates issued to restaurants.

Halal, which means permissible or lawful in Arabic, is a set of rules that ensure food does not contain ingredients Muslims are forbidden to eat, including alcohol and pork as well as meat from cattle and poultry that have not been slaughtered according to Islamic ritual.

There are about 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide and experts say there is keen competition in the halal-food market, which is estimated to amount to $150 billion a year.

For sushi to be halal, “mirin” rice wine, a major ingredient in Japanese cuisine, must be omitted.

Currently, at least five Japanese restaurants and other food outlets in Singapore have been certified halal by MUIS. Most of them received the certification last year.

Among them is Junshin Sushi, a local company that supplies sushi daily to luxury hotels and food caterers in Singapore; Oishi Pizza, a delivery service that offers Japanese-style pizza; and Ramen Ten, a local Japanese restaurant chain.

“Previously, we overlooked the halal market, but nowadays there is a bigger demand for food that does not contain pork or lard,” said Jason Ong, manager of Junshin Sushi. “The result may not be seen overnight but it can be tremendous in the long term.”

What spurred these restaurants to go halal is the rising affluence of Muslim Malaysians who have grown more interested in trying foreign cuisine.

As a result, several halal Chinese, Thai and Korean restaurants have sprung up in recent years. They follow in the path of U.S. fast-food giants that got halal certification as far back as the early 1990s, when MUIS first began certification.

Japanese chain Yoshinoya, which has been in Singapore for eight years and has 16 outlets here, plans to obtain halal certification this year, said Lisa Chai, a spokeswoman for Wing Tai Holdings, the Singaporean property group that runs the local shops.

However, the number of halal Japanese restaurants is low considering there are about 200 Japanese restaurants in the city-state.

People in the food industry say the main problem is the difficulty finding substitutes for some of the ingredients that have to be dropped.

Companies that have gone halal say they had to spend months testing in the kitchen, and searching for alternative seasonings and sauces that do not contain the taboo ingredients. Also, halal restaurants cannot have alcoholic drinks on the menu.

Yet, a large number of Japanese food manufacturers have gone halal to target the large Muslim markets in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. They include big names like Pokka, Yakult, Meiji, Koka and Nissin.

Food seasoning giant Ajinomoto Co. caused an uproar in Indonesia in 2000 after it was discovered the company had used pig enzymes in its monosodium glutamate additive.

Products with halal stamps from countries that include Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and even China and Australia, swamp supermarket shelves in Singapore, where a consumer is more likely to find a product with the approval than without.

All the major brands of milk, fruit juice and instant noodles in Singapore carry halal stamps.

Some of the smaller Japanese companies have joined them.

Foodtech Products, part of the Lacto Japan Group, is one. It opened a small factory in Singapore recently to produce halal exotic cheeses, including wasabi-flavored cheese, for the Southeast Asian market.

Halal restaurateurs and food manufacturers have to comply with strict rules aimed at ensuring the food does not come in contact with nonhalal ingredients.

Any restaurant that has had pork on its menu must undergo a simple ritual cleaning of its kitchen and utensils to be ready to prepare halal food. To ensure that nothing it uses contains any banned ingredients, restaurants usually have to obtain guarantees from their suppliers.

A halal kitchen also must employ at least one Muslim worker tasked with ensuring compliance. Staff are not allowed to bring any nonhalal foods onto the premises, even for their own meals.

MUIS makes surprise checks and certification must be renewed every year.

Despite all the work, companies say the rewards usually are sweet.

Oishi Pizza, which sells wasabi- and teriyaki-flavored pizzas, saw its sales rise 20 percent after it went halal.

The chain plans to increase its outlets to 12 from the current four, and is considering expansion into Malaysia and Indonesia.

Ramen Ten says it plans to put outlets in Indonesia, Brunei and the Middle East in the next three years.