Sunday, January 22, 2012

Halal Hot Pot

Islam came to China as early as the 7th Century A.D. Ambassadors from the third Caliph as well as merchants from Arabia and Persia came to the court of the Tang Dynasty emperors and set up trade. In later centuries, waves of Mongol immigrants brought more Muslims to Chinese cities and courts. The Chinese emperors were tolerant of these visitors, who brought science, trade, and architectural innovations, and allowed them to settle. In today's China, the various ethnic groups making up the Islamic community is called the Hui people.

With such large numbers of Chinese immigrating to the US in recent decades, it shouldn't be a surprise that the Hui people are among them. Even so, it's not easy to find Chinese restaurants in America that serve Islamic-influenced food.

Except here, of course, in Southern California.

We stopped in at the China Islamic Restaurant in Rosemead on a weekday after the lunch rush. It was quiet, with only a few tables occupied.

For three of us, we ordered too much food, but we wanted to sample a large variety. First up was pickled cabbage, or "szechuan kim chee" - crunchy and fresh and not too vinegary.

The green onion sesame bread was amazing. A huge round of flatbread studded with sesame seeds, piping hot. It was tempting to fill up with it, it was so delicious, but we had more food on the way.

Stir-fried lamb and more pickled cabbage. The Hui people seem to like cabbage a lot, since many dishes included it.

Bok choy with black mushrooms - this was more like typical vegetables you'd find in other Chinese restaurants. 

Eggplant in spicy sauce with ground beef. A rich soy-sweet sauce with some heat, and eggplant chunks cooked until they collapsed into lusciousness.

The stunner of the meal was the Lamb stew warm pot - a hot pot, really, an earthenware dish sizzling hot with a rich brown sauce, fragrant with five-spice, and chunks of lamb neck. Beige cubes of tofu floated among sprigs of cilantro and chunks of cabbage.

The waiter set out three small bowls and then ladled helpings into each for us - a chunk of tofu, a slithering skein of clear rice noodles, hunks of lamb and vegetables. The meat was so tender it simply fell apart at the touch. The broth was so rich and spicy it was a revelation of flavor. The soft unctuousness of the tofu followed the still-toothsome cabbage, followed by a slurp of noodle from the plastic spoon. Oddly, the restaurant didn't provide chopsticks, and as I looked around the room, no one else was using them, either.

Cuisine from western China relies more on noodles and bread than on rice, which is seldom served. Lamb, goat, and mutton are commonly available, and pork is never served. The meat is prepared according to Halal tradition.

The hand-cut noodles made from wheat flour are supposed to be amazing here, but we were far too full to eat more - we'll try next time.We brought leftover soup and bread - which reheated easily in the oven - and had plenty of delicious, warming meals to follow.

It's not easy to find Islamic Chinese food in the United States. In addition to Islamic Chinese in Rosemead, there is another Islamic Chinese restaurant in Orange County. I've heard that you can find Hui restaurants in New York City's borough of Queens, though many of these serve ordinary Chinese food adapted to comply with Halal tradition - but I've never explored them. This puts another item on my bucket list.

If you're interested in a whole new take on Chinese food, and you're in Southern California or Queens in New York - seek out Islamic Chinese food.


Max Sartin said...

Green onion sesame bread looks wonderful, as does the stir fried lamb. And the stew sound fantastic. Man, am I hungry now! Unfortunately, the only really good ethnic food in Utah is Mexican. Which I love but it would be nice to have a lot more variety. Your dinner sounds like it was fantastic, thanks for the "taste" of Islamic Chinese cuisine.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Chinese Islamic and Uighur food have made some inroads to the NYC foodscape. Being a lamb fan, I welcome this development. Actually, we have been getting a lot of good Chinese regional cuisines being represented in the metro area.

I wonder if the Muslim population of China pays lip service to the Lunar New Year...

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Looks great! I eagerly await this cuisine's arrival in the West Virginia panhandle.


shrink on the couch said...

A niche food, I confess, would never have crossed my mind! Always learn something on your blog :)