A Tale of Two Countries – Malaysia & France and the Meat They Eat

Posted on February 19, 2010

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575x385_1457907_0_fc39_ill-1307551-7498-quickWelcome to Quick. In this restaurant in Roubaix, the meats offered are certified HALAL, with the guarantee of the relevant authorities, persons entrusted with approval. (Pix AFP/Denis Charlet)

One of the best things about being Malaysian is the opportunity to grow up amongst people with such diverse cultural and religious backgrounds – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazan, Eurasian, Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Taoist, I know, this is insane… – that we’ve become experts at navigating the minefield of cultural do’s and dont’s that would leave others baffled or worse, offended. In a society intensely fixated with food, it has become second nature for Malaysians to pull off a great feast without ignoring the varied dietary requirements of their guests. You’ll find many a Chinese or Indian who would cook in separate utensils for their Muslims friends, for whom pork is a no-no, and Malays who would desist from serving their favourite beef rendang in the presence of Hindu and Buddhist guests.

Some people (I don’t know any, I’m just using a sneaky literary device to create an imaginary situation) might feel that not serving beef for the sake of other people’s feelings somehow violates their individual right to eat beef, or another example of political correctness gone mad. I disagree. It’s the right thing to do when you have guests over. One’s hospitality takes precedence over one’s “individual right”. In any case, is it so necessary to eat beef (or any other meat or food) at that particular instance? Sometimes it’s better to be practical than philosophical.

In France, admittedly a very philosophical country, there is growing disquiet (article in French) over the mainstream presence of halal food, which remains a small albeit growing industry. It is ironic that the very people who made such a big noise demanding Muslims to “integrate” into French society are the same ones who protest when Muslims do participate in the economy and carry out their daily lives in society like everyone else. We can draw two conclusions from this: 1) French people just like to make noise; and 2) when they say ‘integrate’, what they really meant was ‘assimilate’ – act snobby, eat cream, smoke cigarettes and smell bad just like the rest of us! (all stereotypes, I know…)

Recently, a French fast food chain, Quick, was chastised by politicians from both left and right for introducing – on a trial basis – only halal hamburgers in 8 out of its 362 restaurants across France (that’s 2% of total outlets). How are the hamburgers made halal, you ask. Simply by using halal beef patties and substituting smoked turkey for the bacon. The socialist mayor of Roubaix, a town with a Quick ‘halal hamburger’ joint, called the experiment “discriminatory”, because customers who want bacon and, for whatever reason, are uncomfortable with the notion of eating halal beef, can no longer do so. A representative for the right-wing UMP, Richard Mallié echoed his sentiments. “It is precisely because (the fast food chain) does not give a choice to non Muslim patrons that this attitude is unacceptable” claims the politician.

Yes, I guess you could, if you really wanted to, call it “discriminatory”, but it’s hard to sympathise with their predicament considering the country is dotted with many other restaurants serving hamburgers with bacon and a multitude of other porcine products. In any case, it’s got less to do with religion than it is to do with profits. If a business feels it is more profitable to sell halal hamburgers, then it makes sense to do so. Although religion informs the decision of Muslims to consume halal meat, it is far from being a case of religious intolerance, an agenda which the politicians try to push. If the restaurant was instead offering vegetarian or gluten-free or organic meals, there wouldn’t be a big hoo-ha arising from it, but mention ‘halal’ and suddenly everyone goes gaga. It’s like you could almost hear them scream “the Muslims are coming! The Muslims are coming!” like we’re a bunch of crazy marauders out to deny everyone their daily serving of pork.

In Malaysia, a majority Muslim nation, there are plenty of non-halal eateries catering to that niche sector for patrons who enjoy devouring pork, frog legs and other non-halal food. One example is the German restaurant Deutsches Gasthaus, offering typically heavy Teutonic food with lots of pork. What is a Muslim to do? Why, go someplace that does serve halal German food, of course. If no such establishment exists, then we’ll simply eat something else! It’s really not a big deal, monsieur.

Posted in: Food, Society