Jianling, the cashier at Super China Pagoda in Astoria, Queens, is calmly attempting to manage the lunch rush. She seems unfazed by the orders pouring in over the phone – chicken fried rice, beef chow fun, sesame chicken – the demand seems endless. In the kitchen, one cook stands alone against this onslaught. Stoic and laser-focused, clad in the kitchen armor of a well-worn apron, she alternates seamlessly between woks, plating up container after container of steaming hot food. A young Chinese man scurries between the kitchen and a red scooter parked outside, carrying bags of food in both hands, ready to brave the busy streets of New York City. It’s coordinated chaos, but nothing out of the ordinary for a Chinese takeout joint. Something’s different about the food here, though.
“This is a halal Chinese restaurant. There are many Muslims in this area, so we only use halal meat, no pork. You can see our certifications on the wall,” explains Jianling. Halal, meaning “permissible” in Arabic, is a set of Islamic religious laws most often applied to food, including a prohibition on consuming pork and alcohol, as well as specific animal-slaughtering guidelines known as zabiha. An animal must be swiftly killed with a knife across the throat, its blood completely drained, and an Islamic prayer must be uttered during slaughter.
Super China Pagoda represents a unique New York City institution – the halal Chinese takeout restaurant. In New York, Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous, as interwoven into the city’s culinary DNA as bagels or pizza. Virtually every neighborhood in New York has a takeout restaurant serving Americanized Chinese fare such as General Tso’s Chicken and fortune cookies. Untouched by food trends, these restaurants have served the same dishes with the same menu pictures for decades. This isn’t Instagram food porn – this is food for people who want an affordable and filling meal.
For many years, however, the delights of takeout Chinese food remained unknown to a certain population. In the last 30 years, New York has seen an influx of Muslim immigration, with foreign-born residents from majority Islamic countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan increasing by almost 500% between 1990 and 2011. Currently, almost one million Muslims live in New York, representing such a major part of the city’s cultural fabric that Eid al-Adha, a major Islamic festival, is an officially recognized public school holiday. Cultural integration only goes so far, however. Because Islamic dietary law prohibits the consumption of swine, most Muslims are wary of any restaurant where pork is handled in the kitchen. Pork happens to be the most popular animal protein in Chinese cuisine. As a result, most Muslims treated Chinese restaurants as effectively off-limits.
In the 1990s, three enterprising brothers from Qinghai, the sparsely populated northwestern Chinese province that borders Tibet, looked at the competitive New York restaurant market and identified the Muslim population as an untapped pool of diners. Muhammad Chan, Musa Chen and Musa Zheng (Musa, the Arabic word for Moses, is a term of endearment among Chinese Muslims) are Hui Muslims, a minority group in China that traces their ancestry to Muslim merchants from the Middle East and India. Having grown up eating halal food in China, they drew upon their knowledge of the religious dietary laws and applied them to takeout Chinese food. The brothers opened No Pork Halal Kitchen in Boreum Hill, Brooklyn in 1996, followed quickly in subsequent years by No Pork No. 1 Chinese Restaurant and Halal Kitchen in East Harlem. This business model has proven quite successful. According to Yelp, there are currently 13 halal Chinese takeout restaurants in New York City, with most located in or around neighborhoods with a large Muslim population.
At first glance, the location of Super China Pagoda seems eccentric – wedged between an Irish tavern, a laundromat, a convenience store and a Thai restaurant. But Astoria, a diverse Queens neighborhood with a large Greek, Eastern European, and Latino population, is also home to a significant population of Arabs, most of whom are Muslim.
With its no-frills counter service and picture menu displayed on the walls, Super China Pagoda has all the trappings of a typical Chinese takeout restaurant. However, it openly advertises its halal credibility. The signage features Arabic calligraphy and the front windows have neon signs that prominently state “No Pork” and “No Wine.”
Inside the restaurant, halal certifications are displayed prominently on the wall to quell any skepticism from Muslim customers. “Yes, our meat is halal. It is from As-Salam Halal,” Jianling assures a customer on the phone, answering the question she receives several times a day. As-Salam Halal in Jamaica, Queens has been supplying meat to local halal restaurants since the 1980s. (Many halal distributors source from Amish farmers in Pennsylvania, who raise their livestock in a way similar to the traditional methods of halal animal rearing.)
Although Jianling answers questions about halal certifications with confidence, she doesn’t seem particularly knowledgeable about Islam. When asked if she and her fellow workers are Muslim, Jianling replies, “No, we are Chinese, not Muslim,” with a perplexed look – as if the two groups were mutually exclusive. In fact, even the restaurant’s background is a bit of a mystery to her. Super China Pagoda was opened by a Hui Muslim proprietor in 2007, but when asked about the restaurant owner, the only details she can offer are that he goes by the name Ma, and doesn’t come by very often. Jianling claims that he appears sporadically on the weekends, and only to collect money or to do an inspection. Contact is minimal.
This is not atypical. Many of the workers at these halal Chinese restaurants seem to have only a superficial connection to their employers. Unlike many (non-halal) Chinese takeout restaurants, where family members often work together, the Chinese Muslim population in New York is small and must rely on non-Muslim Chinese workers to do the restaurant work. Like Jianling, both the cook and deliveryman at Super China Pagoda have no connection to the owner and only a limited familiarity with Islam. But this lack of knowledge scarcely seems to matter. As an English speaker, Jianling is a natural fit for the cashier position at Super China Pagoda since she deals primarily with non-Chinese speakers. Like most Chinese restaurant workers in New York City, Jianling immigrated from Fujian, the southern Chinese province with a subtropical climate and an abundant coastline. Fujianese cuisine is lightly spiced and delicate, known for its emphasis on seafood and soups. In comparison, the Hui Muslims in Qinghai and the heavily Muslim northwestern province of Xinjiang subsist on a complex cuisine of toothsome hand-pulled noodles, cumin-crusted kebabs, spicy stews of peppers and chicken, and sesame-coated bread.
But none of these dishes – Hui, Xinjiang or Fujianese – appear on the menus of New York’s halal Chinese restaurants. Instead, they serve Americanized Chinese food – egg foo young and fried chicken wings that are more Colonel Sanders than Szechuan. The wonton and egg roll wrappers are thick; the egg drop soup is heavy with cornstarch. Even French fries make an appearance on certain menus. Aside from the halal meat and lack of pork, there’s little to distinguish their menus from that of a typical Chinese American takeout establishment. A few of these halal restaurants do offer regional favorites from Muslim majority countries. Madina Halal Chinese restaurant in Woodside, Queens features chicken lollipops – a drumette with its meat pushed up to form a lollipop shape – which are a popular Chinese-Indian dish in India and Pakistan. However, what truly makes NYC’s halal Chinese restaurants distinctive is the diners – a patchwork of Arab, South Asian and African Muslims.
“We rarely ate out as a kid, so anything different was a treat,” said Jabber Al Bihani, a Yemeni American from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. “When we went to McDonald’s, my mom would only let us eat the Filet-O-Fish because McDonald’s meat wasn’t halal, which sucked because nobody wanted fish. I wanted the Big Mac or Quarter Pounder. I wanted to try different foods. So when a halal Chinese restaurant opened in my neighborhood, I was pretty happy.”
Bay Ridge is home to a Muslim Arab population so sizeable that the local elementary school is approximately 36% Muslim. When a new restaurant named China Pagoda (not to be confused with the Super China Pagoda in Astoria) opened in Jabber’s neighborhood in the year 2000, it was a sensation. Customers – single men, couples, and families with children – waited 20-25 minutes simply to order, causing lines that snaked around the block. Even today, the restaurant remains popular. Young Arab men stand in line, faces absorbed in their phones, waiting for their lunch specials. Women in hijabs feed spoonfuls of food to their children, staining their mouths red with sweet and sour sauce. Throughout the dining room, one hears mostly Arabic, but also Farsi and Bengali.
The neighborhood is filled with Middle Eastern storefronts – travel agencies advertising pilgrimage trips to Saudi Arabia, halal meat shops with dangling whole carcasses of lamb, little grocery stores filled with Middle Eastern spices and dried fruits, bakeries with mounds of Middle Eastern sweets like baklava and kunafa, to be served with a cup of cardamom-scented Arabic coffee. In the middle of all this stands China Pagoda.
Before China Pagoda, Jabber and many Arab Muslims in his community had never tasted Chinese food before. As a second-generation American, he grew up with the food of his parent’s homeland, Yemen. Dishes such as saltah, a meat stew topped with a fenugreek froth, and sahawiq, a salsa-like mixture of chilis, garlic and tomatoes, are served with large flatbreads, baked in a tandoori oven like Indian naan. Rice in Yemen is long-grain and is often mixed with nuts and spices. In the pre-China Pagoda days, many Muslims only knew about Chinese food through secondhand descriptions, which gave rise to many questions: Is duck sauce made from ducks? What’s an egg foo young? And who was General Tso?
For Jabber, China Pagoda’s takeout food, with its short-grain rice, stir-fries, and sticky sweet sauces, would prove to be a revelation. Indeed, it was an instant family favorite. In the beginning, Jabber’s family sometimes ordered Chinese food twice a week, although the more religious family members still avoided it. “Chinese food has a reputation for being porky, so some of the more religious Muslims still didn't trust it,” he said. As a young second-generation immigrant with a craving for food outside of his cultural background, Jabber embraced this new cuisine. “I’d never had fried rice before. I loved that stuff. And duck sauce was my favorite. I would dump that over everything. I knew it wasn’t healthy, but it was good.” No one questioned whether this Chinese food was “authentic” – such a question never occurred to Jabber or his social circle. “We didn’t know what authentic Chinese food was. Nowadays, young people are more aware of food trends and health. So we eat it less, but my sister still orders Chinese food weekly. She loves it.”
As the lunch rush fades at Super China Pagoda, Jianling finally relaxes. She speaks Fujianese to her coworkers, chatting with the formerly stoic cook, now talkative and grateful to be away from the stifling heat of the kitchen. But this intermission is temporary. A middle-aged South Asian man walks through the front door. He seems to be a regular – the quick acknowledgement on Jianling’s face when she sees him, the way he orders shrimp lo mein and egg drop soup without even glancing at the menu, and his lack of hesitation about grabbing the table closest to the counter, no doubt his usual place. His food arrives quickly, but he takes his time. Each bite of lo mein is carefully topped with a squeeze of hot mustard, a delicate process interrupted only by his decision to sip a spoonful of soup.
As the customer eats, his eyes pan leisurely around the tiny three-table dining room. Hanging on the wall is a plaque of Arabic calligraphy and a picture of Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, The Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia. The man pauses. Pointing to the picture, he asks Jianling, now engrossed with her cell phone, if that picture came from Saudi Arabia. Jianling shrugs, “I don’t know. I just work here part-time.” The customer shrugs as well and resumes his lunch ritual. Just as Jianling returns to her cell phone, the restaurant phone rings. “This is Super China Pagoda, halal Chinese restaurant, no pork. Delivery or pickup?”
text & photos by Hunter Lu
Hunter Lu is a writer based in New York City. Originally from California, he’s been a farmer, worked military intelligence in Iraq and has a graduate degree in Food Studies from NYU. He writes mainly about food, identity, and culture. Hunter’s work can be found at hunterlu.com.