'Halal' sushi crops up as Japanese restaurants woo Muslims http://asia.news.yahoo.com/060207/kyodo/d8fkikc85.html
"Curry sushi" and "Hainanese chicken rice sushi" are some of the exotic new hybrids of sushi that have emerged in Singapore, where Japanese food is hugely popular and some local companies have tinkered with the Japanese dish to tease local taste buds.
But an even bigger trend now is "halal sushi" as a rising number of Japanese restaurants adopt strict Islamic rules on food preparation to woo the minority Muslim population in the city-state and grab a slice of the wider Muslim market in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
More Japanese restaurants have recently applied for "halal" certification from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, or MUIS, an agency of the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports that advises the government on Muslim affairs.
They join the growing number of restaurant operations that have gone "halal" to target Muslims, who account for 15 percent of the country's 4 million population.
"Halal" means permissible or lawful in Arabic and provides assurance that food does not contain ingredients that Muslims are forbidden to consume, such as alcohol, pork and meat from cattle and poultry that have not been slaughtered according to Islamic ritual.
When it comes to Japanese foods, this inevitably requires the omission of mirin, a kind of rice wine that is a major condiment of Japanese cuisine, including sushi.
Currently, at least five restaurants and other food outlets have been certified halal by MUIS. Most of them obtained the certification last year.
They include Junshin Sushi, a locally-owned company that produces and supplies sushi each day to luxury hotels and food caterers in Singapore, Oishi Pizza, which delivers Japanese-flavored pizza to homes and offices, and Ramen Ten, a local Japanese restaurant chain.
"Last time, we overlooked the halal market, but nowadays there is a bigger demand for food that does not contain pork or lard. The result may not be seen overnight but it can be tremendous in the long term," Junshin Sushi's manager Jason Ong said.
What spurred these Japanese restaurants to go halal is the rising affluence of the minority Malay and Muslim populace, which has become more eager to try out foreign cuisines.
As a result, several halal Chinese, Thai and Korean restaurants have sprouted here in recent years. They follow the trail of American fast-food giants in Singapore, which already received halal certification as far back as the early 1990s when MUIS first introduced the certification scheme.
Yoshinoya, a Japanese food chain that has been in Singapore for the last 8 years and currently has 16 outlets here, is planning to obtain halal certification this year, said Lisa Chai, a spokeswoman for Wing Tai Holdings, a diversified Singapore property group that runs the local Yoshinoya outlets.
However, the number of halal Japanese food operators is just a fraction when considering that there are up to 200 Japanese restaurants in Singapore.
Those in the food industry say the main hindrance is the difficulty of finding substitutes for some of the ingredients that have to be dropped.
Companies that went halal say they had to spend months conducting research in their kitchens and scouring for alternative seasonings and sauces that do not contain ingredients taboo to Muslims. Besides that, they also cannot serve alcoholic drinks such as beer, sake or wine in their restaurants.
On the other hand, a large number of Japanese processed food manufacturers have gone halal to target the larger, predominantly Muslim markets of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. They include big food brands such as Pokka, Yakult, Meiji, Koka and Nissin.
Nowadays, food products with the halal logos from MUIS or other Islamic authorities in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and even China and Australia swamp supermarket shelves in Singapore, where a consumer is more likely to find products with these logos than without. For example, all the major brands of fresh milk, fruit juice and instant noodle in Singapore carry halal logos.
Some small and medium-sized Japanese companies have also jumped on the bandwagon. One of them is Foodtech Products, part of the Lacto Japan Group, which opened a small factory in Singapore recently to produce "halal" exotic cheeses, including wasabe-flavored cheese, for the Southeast Asian market.
Halal restaurant operators and food manufacturers have to comply with very strict conditions to ensure their products are not tainted with non-halal ingredients.
In year 2000, Japanese food seasoning giant Ajinomoto Co. caused an uproar in predominantly Muslim Indonesia after it was discovered that the company had used pig enzymes in its flavor-enhancing product.
A restaurant that had pork on its menu in the past and would like to go halal must undergo a simple ritual cleaning for its kitchen and utensils. It must commit to ensure that every raw material used does not contain any banned ingrediants and usually has to obtain a guarantee even from its food suppliers.
It must also employ at least one Muslim worker to keep an eye on compliance. Also, staff in the company are not allowed to bring non-halal foods into the premises even for their own meals. MUIS also conducts surprise checks and the certificates have to be renewed each year.
Despite all the hassle, companies say the rewards are usually sweet.
Oishi Pizza, which sells pizza with wasabi and teriyaki flavors, saw sales surge by 20 percent after it went halal. The chain plans to increase its outlets to 12 from the current four, and is eyeing to expand to Malaysia and Indonesia. Ramen Ten says it plans to expand its outlets to Indonesia, Brunei and the Middle East in the next three years.
Over the last four years, the total number of halal certificates issued by MUIS has almost tripled to nearly 8,000 last year from only 2,800 in year 2000. They include 1,000 certificates issued to restaurants.
There are about 1.8 billion Muslims in the world and experts say there is keen competition among countries for the halal food market, which experts estimate is worth US$150 billion a year.