Muslims in the Kingdom seeking to follow Sharia dietary requirements are frustrated by a shortage of halal food producers and forced to rely on a producer certification system that is based on little more than trust
Hundreds of chickens clucked in nearby cages as halal slaughterers worked on plucking and cleaning carcasses. The chickens had been killed in accordance with Sharia – a quick prayer and a single swift cut at the neck to sever the jugular vein, windpipe and carotid artery.
This slaughter house, just off National Road 5 in Russei Keo district, is one of just a handful of places in Phnom Penh where Cham Muslims can buy local halal poultry. Ly Saren, who runs the business, said it is important for the Kingdom’s Muslim minority to have access to its own meat.
“We have [dietary] rules, so Muslim people don’t buy from Khmer people,” he said.
Although Cambodia has around 350,000 Muslims according to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, members of the Cham community say the Kingdom has a shortage of halal food. And what is labelled halal is often of dubious provenance.
“We may see the halal logo put on food, but we do not have a halal committee to check if it is truly halal,” said Nazy Saleh, president of the Cambodian Muslim Media Center.
Although the nation’s Highest Council of Islamic Affairs issues halal certification, the process is based on trust rather than rigourous inspection. Saren, who is certified, said that no one has ever inspected his business to ensure he was in compliance with the rules of his religion.
“We are Muslims, and people who come here trust the Muslim people,” he said, adding that members of the public are able to come and see the conditions for themselves.
But this system based on confidence can be a problem, said Saleh, when food producers mislabel food as halal due to an inadequate understanding of the rules or out of wilful deceit. A packet of instant noodles with chicken flavouring, for instance, may be marked halal even if the chickens weren’t slaughtered properly.
Many Cham Muslims, said Saleh, are not particularly worried about keeping halal, while others would like to follow strict Sharia interpretations but are under-educated in Islamic scripture.
“Some Muslims, they don’t understand the Islamic laws and will eat halal food mixed with non-halal,” he said. Before the Qu’ran was translated into Khmer and Cham in 2011 most Muslims only learned of Islamic practices indirectly through teachers and imams who had studied overseas, he added.
The only guaranteed halal options in the Kingdom, Saleh added, are Thai and Malaysian imports certified by their respective halal committees, as well as international franchises, such as KFC and Sarpino’s Pizza, who have certifications from elsewhere.
What needs to be established, Saleh said, is a proper halal committee equipped with a laboratory to inspect foods for forbidden ingredients, such as pork, blood or alcohol.
“If we just check with our eyes, it is not truly halal,” Saleh said.
Proper halal certifications in the Kingdom have been suggested in the past – the United Arab Emirates’ foreign trade minister even announced that it was considering investing in a Cambodian halal food production facility in 2012. Plans, however, have failed to materialise.
In the absence of a formal halal certification committee, many Islamic business people from Cambodia and elsewhere have taken matters into their own hands to cater to their religious community’s unique needs. A few dozen halal-labelled restaurants are scattered around the city, ranging from cheap restaurants run by Cham families to more lavish Indian eateries owned by expats.
Mam Any’s family owns Asmak 81 on Street 154, one of the more popular restaurants in the Cham community. Like many Cham-owned restaurants, his menu combines local Cham dishes – which are largely indistinguishable from regular Khmer dishes apart from the absence of pork or blood – with a selection of Malaysian dishes. While he gets few non-Muslims (he speculates they are deterred by his dry bar), he serves a regular stream of locals as well as tourists from Malaysia and Singapore.
Over a deep-fried sea bass smothered in hot and sour sauce, Any explained that Phnom Penh’s Muslims tend not to eat out because they fear contaminated foods.
“When we come to eat outside … we are afraid it is mixed with other foods and not really clean,” he said.
He himself feels the strain as he travels nine kilometres away from his restaurant to shop for food in the predominately Cham areas on the city’s northern outskirts. But he said that providing a Muslim-friendly restaurant in a country that cherishes its pork and beer is important for the fabric of his community.
Any said: “We need two things – to know the origin of our meat, and for our chefs to be Muslim.”